Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Bryson)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid 
Bill Bryson, 2006
Random House
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780767919371


Summary 
Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and of his mother,whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—December 8 1951 
Where—Des Moines, Iowa
Education—B.A., Drake University
Awards—Order of the British Empire, 2006; James Joyce
   Award of the Literary and Historical Society of University
   College of Dublin, 2007
Currently—lives in England

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. Born an American, he was a resident of North Yorkshire, UK, for most of his professional life before moving back to the US in 1995. In 2003 Bryson moved back to the UK, living in Norfolk, and was appointed Chancellor of Durham University.

More
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, the son of William and Mary Bryson. He has an older brother, Michael, and a sister, Mary Jane Elizabeth.

He was educated at Drake University but dropped out in 1972, deciding to instead backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high school friend, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz. Some of his experiences from this trip are relived as flashbacks in Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, which documents a similar journey Bryson made twenty years later.

Move to UK
Bryson decided to stay in England after landing a job working in a psychiatric hospital—the now defunct Holloway Sanatorium in Virginia Water, Surrey. He met a nurse there named Cynthia, whom he married, and they moved to the USA in 1975 so Bryson could complete his college degree. In 1977, they settled in the UK, where they remained until 1995.

Living in North Yorkshire and mainly working as a journalist, Bryson eventually became chief copy editor of the business section of The Times, and then deputy national news editor of the business section of The Independent. He left journalism in 1987, three years after the birth of his third child. Still living in Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire, Bryson started writing independently and in 1990 their fourth and final child, Sam, was born.

Writings
In 1995, Bryson returned to the United States to live in Hanover, New Hampshire, for some years, the stories of which feature in his book I'm A Stranger Here Myself, alternatively titled Notes from a Big Country in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. During his time in the United States, Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym), about which he wrote the book A Walk in the Woods. In 2003 the Brysons and their four children returned to the UK, and now live in Norfolk.

Also in 2003, in conjunction with World Book Day, voters in the United Kingdom chose Bryson's book Notes from a Small Island as that which best sums up British identity and the state of the nation. In the same year, he was appointed a Commissioner for English Heritage.

In 2004, Bryson won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book with A Short History of Nearly Everything. This 500-page popular literature piece explores not only the histories and current statuses of the sciences, but also reveals their humble and often humorous beginnings. Although one "top scientist" is alleged to have jokingly described the book as "annoyingly free of mistakes", Bryson himself makes no such claim, and a list of nine reported errors in the book is available online, identifying the chapter in which each appears but with no page or line references. In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication.

Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language — Mother Tongue and Made in America — and, more recently, an update of his guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (published in its first edition as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words in 1983). These books were popularly acclaimed and well-reviewed, though they received some criticism claiming that they contained factual errors, urban myths and folk etymologies.

Honors
In 2005, Bryson was appointed Chancellor of Durham University, succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and has been particularly active with student activities, even appearing in a Durham student film (the sequel to The Assassinator) and promoting litter picks in the city. He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. He has also been awarded honorary degrees by numerous universities, including Bournemouth University and in April 2002 the Open University.

In 2006, Frank Cownie, the mayor of Des Moines, awarded Bryson the key to the city and announced that 21 October 2006 would be known as "Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid, Day."

In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair on the state of science and education.

On 13 December 2006, Bryson was awarded an honorary OBE for his contribution to literature. The following year, he was awarded the James Joyce Award of the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin.

In January 2007, Bryson was the Schwartz Visiting Fellow of the Pomfret School in Connecticut.

In May 2007, he became the President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. His first area focus in this role was the establishment of an anti-littering campaign across England. He discussed the future of the countryside with Richard Mabey, Sue Clifford, Nicholas Crane and Richard Girling at CPRE's Volunteer Conference in November 2007. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
As a humorist, Bryson falls somewhere between the one-liner genius of Dave Barry and the narrative brilliance of David Sedaris.... At his best he spools out operatically funny vignettes of sustained absurdity that nevertheless remain grounded in universal experience. These accounts, like the description of the bumper-car ride at a run-down amusement park or the tale of a friend's father's descent from the high dive at a local lake, defy excerpting; when taken whole, they will leave many readers de-couched.

Occasionally in the course of his reminiscences, Bryson abandons punch lines and demonstrates a lyrical gift for the tactile and noisome nature of childhood…that elevates the work to the level of classics in the genre like Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie.
Jay Jennings - New York Times


Bill Bryson is erudite, irreverent, funny and exuberant, making the temptation to quote endlessly from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid hard to resist. Bryson interweaves childhood reminiscences seamlessly with observations about 1950s America, evoking a zeitgeist that will be familiar to almost everyone past middle age. Though his memories are for the most part pleasurable, he doesn't evade the darker side of the times.
Juliet Wittman - Washington Post


For most of his adult life, Bryson has made his home in the U.K, yet he actually entered the world in 1951 as part of America's postwar baby boom and spent his formative years in Des Moines, Iowa. Bryson wistfully recounts a childhood of innocence and optimism, a magical point in time when a distinct sense of regional and community identity briefly—but blissfully—coexisted with fledgling technology and modern convenience. Narrating, Bryson skillfully wields his amorphous accent—somehow neither fully British nor Midwestern—to project a genial and entertaining tour guide of lost Americana. In portraying the boyish exploits of his "Thunderbolt Kid" superhero alter ego, he convincingly evokes both the unadulterated joys and everyday battles of childhood.
Publishers Weekly


A noted travel humorist and the author of several books on the English language, Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything) here offers a departure-a memoir about growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s. The title is taken from his childhood fantasy life where he existed as a superhero. Bryson effortlessly weaves together the national themes of the 1950s-civil defense drills and bland foods-with the Norman Rockwell world found in most small towns. Charming features long since gone include a downtown department store with a tea room (where children could select a toy from the toy chest), a cafeteria where you turned on a light for service, and a supermarket with a Kiddie Corral filled with comic books where children stayed while their mothers shopped. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone other than Bryson reading his words; his narration adds a special quality to the experience. Regardless of one's age, location, or gender, this book will fondly evoke memories of childhood. Alternately wildly entertaining and innocently nostalgic, this is a book not to be missed. Highly recommended for all public libraries.
Gloria Maxwell - Library Journal


I can't imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s," writes Bryson (A Walk in the Woods), and his wryly amusing stories of his childhood in Des Moines almost convince the reader this is true. Bryson recounts the world of his younger self, buried in comic books in the Kiddie Corral at the local supermarket, resisting civil defense drills at school, and fruitlessly trying to unravel the mysteries of sex. His alter ego, the Thunderbolt Kid, born of his love for comic-book superheroes and the need to vaporize irritating people, serves as an astute outside observer of life around him. His family's foibles are humorously presented, from his mother's burnt, bland cooking to his father's epic cheapness. The larger world of 1950s America emerges through the lens of "Billy's" world, including the dark underbelly of racism, the fight against communism, and the advent of the nuclear age. Recommended for public libraries.
Alison Lewis - Library Journal


A charming, funny recounting of growing up in Des Moines during the sleepy 1950s. Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, etc.) combines nostalgia, sharp wit and a dash of hyperbole to recreate his childhood in the rural Midwest. Using a homespun, idiosyncratic voice reminiscent of Jean Shepherd, he tells of a generally happy youth as the son of a loving but often absent sportswriter father and a dizzyingly absentminded mother, a "home furnishings" reporter at the Des Moines Register who once sent him to school wearing her own peddle-pushers. The journey includes visits to stately downtown Des Moines, where Younkers, the preeminent local department store, offered free gifts to patrons of its "elegant" Tea Room; the annual Iowa State Fair, where Bryson tried desperately to gain access to the notorious "strippers' tent"; and the bacchanalia of Saturday matinees at the local movie theater, where candy and popcorn flew through the darkened theater like confetti. We also meet some of Bryson's colorful comrades, like George Willoughby, an adept vending-machine thief who also placed bugs in his soup in order to get free ice-cream sundaes from the stricken restaurant manager; and the troubled Stephen Katz, a prodigious substance-abuser who organized the theft of an entire boxcar of Old Milwaukee beer. Eventually, progress caught up with Des Moines, and even young Bryson's imagined superpowers can't stop it. Holiday Inns and Travelodges replaced the town's stately Victorian homes, and the family-owned downtown stores, movie palaces and restaurants were undone by shopping malls and multiplexes. In that sense, the decline of downtown Des Moines mirrors that of hundreds of small and midsized towns across the country. But in Bryson's bittersweet memoir, he reminds readers of the joys many people forgot to even miss. A great, fun read, especially for Baby Boomers nostalgic for the good old days.
Kirkus Review



Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:

1. Bryson paints the 50's as an innocent, almost idyllic time. Was it?

2. Does the childhood Bryson describes take place in a lost America? He paints a rich portrait of community ties and identity. To what degree do those ties still exist? What has been lost? Consider the effects of TV and the computer.

3. Discuss Bryson's mother, a professional woman, and his father, who was also absent a good deal of the time. How did their manner of parenting strike you? Do we have a different concept of parenting today?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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