Nuclear bomb alerts, beer thefts, baseball and the tantalising thought of half-naked women dancing inside a marquee at the trade fair in Des Moines in Iowa. Bill Bryson’s autobiographical account of his childhood in the mid-western town is a lyrical love letter to the great American dream. A dream that sadly seemed to have evaporated when he returned to his old stomping ground as an adult. Gone were the department stores, the cafes and the cinemas he spent golden hours frequenting.
This is the third volume of Bryson’s I’ve read and his humour and story telling are what keeps the pages turning – along with the punchlines at the conclusion of each chapter and mini chapter. Notes on a Small Island was his account of a journey he made around England using public transport stopping in unfashionable towns before returning to America as a sort of state of the nation tour. Like A Walk In The Woods – his account of walking the Appalachians with his friend Katz – both travelogues are filled with incident, conversations and observations – and information – but above all humour.
The Thunderbolt Kid is a reference to his fantasy as a child of being a super hero and being able in his imagination to vaporise anyone he didn’t like. So much of the book has laugh out loud moments like when they organised the theft of beer from a warehouse masterminded by Katz, or when he broke his leg and realised adults couldn’t be counted on as despite his pleas he was left lying on a lawn as they ignored him.
His social observations give a child’s eye view of 1950s America including his experiences of mixing with black school children for the first time as well as his consternation at school when the pupils were ordered to hide under their desks during a nuclear attack drill. It’s an affectionate portrayal of the time when the country was considered the happiest place on earth and society embraced consumerism on an industrial scale.