The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of those writers who has the ability to make me laugh out loud. Fortunately, I did not read this book in a public place where such behavior is frowned upon.
This is a memoir of growing up as a member of the Baby Boomer generation in the 50s and early 60s. The author is several years older than I am, yet many of the images he evoked brought back memories of my own childhood, so along with the laughter were some unexpected pangs of nostalgia. Although I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY – about as polar opposite as you can get from the author’s hometown of Des Moines – the experiences he relates seem to cross all geographical boundaries.
Along with the lighthearted stuff – fun-filled family road trips, America’s love affair with television and the automobile, the strangely alluring smell of mimeograph paper, the innocent political incorrectness of the era, and Bill’s infatuation with being a superhero – there were also some serious considerations. How the uniqueness of downtowns across America was eventually wiped out by chain restaurants, suburban sprawl and “mall-ification.” How our feel-good culture believed that pretty much everything was good for us – including cigarettes, booze and (oddly enough) nuclear proliferation. And how concerns about Communism, polio, segregation and – gasp – rock and roll eventually turned the population from giddily optimistic to wary and suspicious.
The memoir also brought home the sea change in attitudes and priorities that took place during this time. As Bill Bryson explained it: “People were beginning to discover that joyous consumerism is a world of diminishing returns.” As we needed more things, we needed more money to buy those things. And more time and money to fix those things. And more people in the work force to make the money to buy new things when the old things weren’t fixable anymore. Regrettably, instead of building on the fun of the 50s, we chose to build on the “stuff.” The author states, “Americans took none of the productivity gains in additional leisure. We decided to work and buy and have instead.”
Despite all the LOL moments, this book left me strangely downhearted, knowing in my heart that the life we lived during my childhood was one that can never be repeated. As Bill Bryson concluded: “What a wonderful world it was. We won’t see its like again, I’m afraid.”
Side Note: The book relates that “according to the Gallup organization, 1957 was the happiest year ever recorded in the United States of America.” The author wonders why that was so; I like to think it was because I was born that year.