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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

“The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” is another book from Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors. The subtitle is “Travels through my childhood”, (Random House, Black Swan books 2007, ISBN 978-0-552-15546-5).
At the beginning of the book, Bryson introduces you to 1951, the year of his birth. He reminds the reader that the following items were new, or about to be invented, with the list covering “ball-point pens, fast foods, TV dinners, electric can openers, shopping malls … contact lenses, credit cards, tape recorders, LP records and the hydrogen bomb. Microwave ovens were available but weighed 700 pounds.”
Bryson is the master of the unassuming entrance and the wonderfully rambunctious exit in his literary style. Take the description of his father’s stash of girlie magazines - “in a secret place, known only to him, me and one hundred and eleven of my closest friends, in his bedroom.”
He describes a bygone era, that anyone who was born before 1951 will remember. “Kids were always outdoors - I knew kids that were pushed out the back door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding.”
Bryson shows the origins of the Thunderbolt Kid, a being he could turn into, who could reduce others to smoldering holes on the carpet with one withering glance, which brought back images of that wonderful 1963 movie Billy Liar starring Tom Courtenay as Billy, and Julie Christie (with whom I remain eternally in love) as his girlfriend. I wonder if Bill Bryson has seen it? Bryson writes that he suspected that he was actually from another planet, having made the discovery of his supernatural powers of being able to kill morons when he was almost six years old. A feat he claims he has carried to this day.
Bryson has a surgeon’s eye when it comes to dissecting the society of the 1950s (in fact, any society - just read his other books) and details the ludicrous McCarthy years of ‘reds under the bed’ where even stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was accused of seditious acts. (At least the honorable Senator couldn’t claim she was hiding evidence on her person, I suppose.) It was during this time, Bryson reports, that double Nobel prizewinner Linus Pauling had his passport confiscated on his way to be honored by the Royal Society in the UK. His transgression? “He had once or twice publicly expressed a liberal thought,” writes Bryson.
It is always rewarding to read prose from someone who can use the English language expressively, and Bill Bryson is a master of the art form. Consider his description of an old lady as “glacially slow, interestingly malodorous.”
Like all of Bill Bryson’s books, it is wonderfully written and evocative exposť, not really of the life of a young boy, but the whole American society of the 1950s. It is a classic piece of rear vision, without attempting to appear wise in hindsight. At a once-only price of B. 395, it will give a lifetime of laughs. I loved it. Do get it.