The land of make-believe 

Examining the '50s and '60s with the eyes of a secret childhood superhero

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For most of his career, Bill Bryson has been an outrospective writer, penning irresistibly witty travelogues, accessible etymology guides and one all-encompassing compendium, A Short History of Nearly Everything. His latest effort finally finds him introspective, traversing his own childhood in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

It's a happy reprieve from most memoirs of late, which are seemingly one-upping each other with sordid details. Bryson's story is instead of a happy life, one filled with imperfect glory days.

Though in the foreword he warns, "what follows isn't terribly eventful," the book details America's most quietly eventful age: the 1950s and '60s. The era was "a curious blend of undiluted optimism and a kind of eager despair," a time when the end and the perfection of humanity were dually possible, and America smiled hard back at Doomsday. Despite his coming of age within these years, Bryson still finds it "an impossible age to figure."

More personally, Bryson recalls his own family life in Iowa, with his father's winning stinginess and bare-assed sleepwalking, and his mother's maddening-slash-delightful lack of short-term memory. He warmly thinks back to his time spent in Kid World, with all its tiered bullying, trophy scabs, landslides of comic books and dimensions of time.

And it was in that altered sense of time where Bryson created his costumed alias, the Thunderbolt Kid, whose powers included "X-ray vision to peer beneath the clothes of attractive women and [the power] to carbonize and eliminate people teachers, babysitters, old women who wanted a kiss." Bryson lapses frequently into the Thunderbolt Kid, spending much of his childhood in Walter Mitty flights of fancy a product of the science-fiction promises of his youth, which assured him he would grow up with "atomic trains and aircrafts, personal jet packs, [and] a gyrocopter in every driveway."

Bryson analyzes '50s and '60s society in the best way: by not letting humanity get away with anything. He writes like he's telling a get-cozy good story, with gleeful, head-shaking details that come from frequent tangents.

He discusses his boyhood days astutely and acerbically, but also with heart, lamenting a lost age, but not its faults. He never slips into any "Greatest Generation" quagmires, nor does he disown his past. He examines his own life with the eye he's used for years to skewer the rest of the world. It's impossible to read The Thunderbolt Kid and not compare your own present to Bryson's recalled past.

You have to wonder, however, if Bryson has done the same here, instead with his own past texts. In 1989's The Lost Continent, Bryson travels America's back roads searching for the "quintessential small town," only to come away empty-handed, and sighing that the ideal burg has been lost to time. Yet he finds that town in The Thunderbolt Kid, in, of course, his own childhood suburban Des Moines.

While small towns like Bryson's are easily fled and toughly claimed one's own, they also provide the context for the most halcyon of days. And in telling the story of his coming of age in this town, Bryson is at his most romantic, wishing the best moments in history, and the hometowns in which these moments are relayed, would just stick around a little while longer.

Matt Martin


The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

By Bill Bryson

Broadway, $25/hardcover


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