Thursday, August 1, 2013

How the Midwest was won

The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited (2006)

Best-selling author Bill Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa during the 1950s and '60s, and in his playful memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he recreates his childhood and teen years with humour and pathos, and sometimes a touch of nostalgia.

With tongue firmly in cheek, and a near encyclopedic knowledge of arcane comic book titles, TV shows and Hollywood stars of the era, Bryson describes the head-scratching fashions, politics, fears, customs and preoccupations of the Midwest following the Second World War. This was a time when detonating hydrogen bombs was a spectator sport and the fear of Communism pervaded every nook and cranny of American life. To be fair, it was also the era of pea shooters, hula hoops, Howdy Doody, Bing Crosby, the New York Yankees and drive-in restaurants.

In all seriousness, this is a fun read, particularly if you grew up in the years Bryson chronicles and can relate to the fads and fashions of the time. I was born eight years after Bryson, but many of the cultural references and world events are somewhat familiar to me. To give an example of Bryson's exquisite eye for detail and his talent for highlighting absurd fashion trends of the day, here he describes a haircut that suddenly became vogue in the '50s:
"...In 1955, my father and brother went to the barbershop and came back with every hair on their heads standing at attention and sheared off in a perfect horizontal plane in the arresting style known as a flattop. They spent most of the rest of the decade looking as if they were prepared in emergencies to provide landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft, or perhaps special delivery messages sent by miniature missile. Never have people looked so ridiculous and happy at the same time."
There are countless anecdotes like that, each more hilarious than the next. One word of caution before reading The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid: This is a laugh-out-loud book that really demands to be read in private. To read it in a public space would be to invite scrutiny and concern from passersby. You could very well find yourself laughing aloud so often that strangers could be forgiven for suspecting that you were certifiably insane.

If you're looking for a book that provides a glimpse of the formative years of one our best contemporary writers, and a history lesson on a generation which seems to have been stuck in neutral and heavily influenced from visitations from other planets, then find this book and read it today -- preferably in private.

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