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The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Bill Bryson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 29, 2014
Category: Memoir

Reader Review: “A few years ago I was on a transit train in late afternoon reading ‘Thunderbolt Kid.’ I laughed so loudly it came out as an unattractive sound followed by more snorting like sounds. The well-dressed businessman beside me patted me on the shoulder and asked politely if I was okay. No, I was almost hysterical while reliving my Midwest Canadian childhood in Winnipeg.”

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Bill Bryson was born in 1951 in Des Moines, Iowa. Talk about lucky! “I can’t imagine there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than America in the 1950s,” he writes. “We became the richest country in the world without needing the rest of the world.”

And Billy Bryson — white, Protestant, son of a brilliant sportswriter and the home furnishings editor of the Des Moines Register — was in just the right place to take full advantage.

As many of you know, Bryson grew up to write first class travel books — A Walk in the Woods, his account of walking the Appalachian Trail with his out-of-shape friend, Steve Katz, is both informative and hilarious — and serious studies of language, like Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words and the essential A Short History of Nearly Everything. But as a kid, he was a pure doofus. He had no interest in school, his city’s cultural institutions or its many opportunities for youth athletics.

By the testimony of this memoir, Billy Bryson had only one childhood obsession: trouble. Namely, how much damage to property and civility could one fresh-faced boy — and, of course, his posse of equally privileged homies — do each and every day.

And because kids roamed free in those days and time stretched to the horizon, Billy had all of Des Moines as his target.

Exhibit A: He liked to hide on the top floor of an office building with a central atrium. Seven stories below was a restaurant: “A peanut M&M that falls seventy feet into a bowl of tomato soup makes one heck of a splash, I can tell you.”

Exhibit B: He delighted in using a magnifying glass to focus a beam of sunlight on the bald head of his napping Uncle Dick to see what would happen: “What happened was that you burned an amazingly swift, deep hole that would leave Dick and a team of specialists at Iowa Lutheran Hospital puzzled for weeks.”

Exhibit C: He once peed on brown Lincoln Logs to turn them white — and then watched, deadpan, as a teacher licked the toy logs to prove they’d been bleached with lemon juice.

Weird characters abound. Like Bill’s mother, who wrote about the home, but was derelict in the domestic arts: “As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear potatoes exploding in the oven.” Like Bill’s father, who was so cheap that when the Brysons finally drove out to Disneyland, Bill asked his mother, “Have I got leukemia?” Like another kid’s dad, doing a swan dive from the high board, changing his mind in mid-air and landing flat: “At such a speed water effectively becomes a solid.” And like Uncle Dee, who had a surgically-made hole in his neck: “Whatever he ate turned into a light spray from his throat hole.”

Are you laughing yet? Methinks you should be. There is funny, and then there is Bill Bryson, who makes you howl with laughter and fight for breath. “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” is not a book for the seriously ill, the commuter who uses public transportation or even the easily grossed-out. But for everyone over 50 who grew up in a house and had parents who owned a car, health and circumstances matter not — this is the story of at least part of your youth. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

It was a time of flattop haircuts (“landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft”). Cigarettes. Cocktails. Cars with no seat belts, drinks thick with sugar, medicine with no child-proofing. Televisions everywhere. Electric football games. Bra ads featuring half-dressed women in odd locations. Misbehave, and you get sent to “the cloakroom.” Paper routes.

Every once in a while, Bryson sprinkles the pages with seriousness that is all the more powerful for its scarcity. Did you know that Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, started his career as a shoe salesman? Did you know that, at the peak of the Red Scare, “thirty-two of the forty-eight states had loyalty oaths”? Did you know about Lamar Smith, an African American, who successfully voted in Mississippi — only to be shot dead on the courthouse steps?

Books that are nostalgic and funny and have seriousness just under the surface tend to have sad, “those were the days” endings. The first mall is built, and right there we know the central business district is doomed. Graduation is like a break shot in pool — the old gang scatters and never reunites. And so on.

Bryson avoids the gooey emotions by saving his best crimes and his zaniest characters — Steve Katz, co-star of “A Walk in the Woods” — for last. Fake drivers’ licenses. Beer robberies. And nobility, for in Des Moines, at least, there was, for one gang of kids, honor among thieves.

“I was,” Bryson says, “enormously stupid.” Yes. He was, and this book is the proof.

But he also says that his book is “about not very much, about being small and getting larger slowly.” Wrong. “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” is about being wide-awake and seeing everything and getting every last weird detail down exactly right.

And that makes his memoir almost surely the most enjoyable book you’ll read this year.