June 11, 2007
Bill Bryson: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
I’ve read most of Bill Bryson’s other titles – even the slightly dull ones on language – (in fact all but A Walk in the Woods and Notes from a Big Country, though the latter was a collection of newspaper columns rather than a ‘proper’ book) and felt he was outstaying his welcome to a degree with the travel stuff. So A Short History of Nearly Everything was very welcome and refreshing. Sadly his memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid seemed to me a return to what he does … not best, but most.
It’s subtitled Travels Through My Childhood and flits between memories of Bryson as a boy and a whistle-stop account of American life in the 1950s. The latter sections I found far superior, with Bryson bringing his light and accessible – and probably simplistic, for all I know – touch to themes of racism, Commie fever and H-bomb madness. It’s been done before but Bryson does make it very readable.
Writers working on [TV] shows sponsored by Camel cigarettes were forbidden to show villains smoking cigarettes, to make any mention in any context of fires or arson or anything bad to do with smoke and flames, or to have anyone cough for any reason. When a competitor on the game show Do You Trust Your Wife? replied that his wife’s astrological sign was Cancer … ‘the tobacco company sponsoring the show ordered it to be refilmed and the wife’s sign changed to Aries.’ Even more memorably, for a broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg on a series called Playhouse 90, the sponsor, the American Gas Association, managed to have all references to gas ovens and the gassing of Jews removed from the script.
The autobiographical stuff, by comparison, I found it hard to warm to. On the one hand, there are odd continuity problems, like Bryson claiming on page 239 that “I didn’t like what was on TV very much” and then on page 254 listing twenty-one TV shows he particularly loved, “but really I would watch anything.” There’s also the notion of who the book is written for: there are UK-only references such as being told to be “proud” that one baseball player came from Glasgow, but then there is a page where he goes into detail about well-remembered toys like Slinky, Mr Potatohead and hula hoops, while giving no explanation of American phenomena like mimeograph paper and rutabaga.
But I think mostly I’ve just tired a little of Bryson’s mock-wide-eyed, avuncular tone. Part of this is his tendency to conclude any anecdote he can’t end properly with “I just love that sort of thing” or “I think life is rather splendid like that.” His other way of jazzing up stories is to exaggerate wildly or pin an obvious bit of silly invention to the end of a tale, which tends to give the impression that he himself doesn’t quite trust the material to stand up on its own. To be fair, he does warn us twice: “What follows isn’t terribly eventful, I’m afraid” … “This is a book about not very much.” The exaggerations and inventions (one successful one, because unexpected, is the first appearance of the Thunderbolt Kid) sit oddly with the prim insistence on the copyright page of my edition that other than to “protect the privacy of others … the author has stated to the publishers that the content of this book is true.” Perhaps he doesn’t want to be accused of doing a James Frey.
(Speaking of James Frey, I was rather alarmed to see that Bryson presents a string of antics by his friend ‘Stephen Katz’ for our entertainment – I gather he also featured prominently in A Walk in the Woods – mostly involving how much alcohol he consumed as a under-age teenager. Only in the closing Where-Are-They-Now chapter does he reveal that this was the first stage in long-term adult alcoholism for Katz, who has only been dry for three years of his adult life. Hilarious!)
Having said all that, it did make me laugh out loud sometimes, and it’s an effortless read. One predictable bugbear was the ridiculous wide spacing of the type – 28 lines on a page – and the appending of the first chapter of one of Bryson’s other books, presumably so the paperback could wind up a fat 420 pages as opposed to the positively anorexic 320 pages of the hardback. The reason I hate this practice is because it makes books thicker and so you can’t get as many of them on your shelves. The upside is that as The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid isn’t a keeper, that doesn’t really matter anyway.