Sunday, August 17, 2008

Listening Journal: "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid"

Bill Bryson, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. Read by the author. Available at the Northfield Public Library.

On long car trips, like the thousand-mile round trip to the eastern Upper Peninsula, the boys generally subside into a kind of iPod- and Gameboy-induced suspended animation. While Clara's driving, I sleep or daydream or wonder what on earth people do in places like Withee, Wisconsin, or Naubinway, Michigan. We seldom stop except for purposes of refueling or peeing, although I once stopped to read an historical marker about the Wisconsin state soil, Antigo Silt Loam, outside the actual town of Antigo. (Click the link and, if you have Windows Media Player, you can hear Antigo third and fourth graders singing the Antigo Silt Loam Song.) Occasionally, on very long trips, we listen to a humorous audiobook. On a trip to Vermont (a nearly 3,000 mile round trip) a few years ago, we listened to David Sedaris, and nearly drove off the New York State Thruway because we were laughing so hard.

This time, we listened to Bill Bryson's memoir of his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s. The book is nostalgic, funny, and perfect for a long road trip. A few moments were drive-off-the-road funny, as when Bryson tells about the "toidy jar" his mother kept for his emergency use under the kitchen sink. Bryson fills the book with interesting facts about America in the 1950s, and remembers vividly the peculiarly fruitful quality of childhood boredom in those days before iPods and video games. He also captures the excitement and uncertainty of growing up at the dawn of the nuclear age. The 1950s was the golden age of the comic book, and Bryson occasionally imagines himself as a young superhero with "thundervision," with which he vaporizes irritating morons. The conceit gives the book its title, but it isn't really central to the narrative. What is central is the imaginative quality of childhood, and the book balances nicely between a childhood sense of fantasy and wonder and a grown-up sense of nostalgia.

Most of all, Bryson's book is about Des Moines—or rather, about the uniqueness of each American hometown before the big box homogenization of the American landscape. Des Moines was a place of downtown movie palaces, homegrown department stores, a locally-owned newspaper. Beneath the rollicking humor is an elegy for the unique American downtown, before it was gutted by chain stores and suburban malls and the culture of the automobile. That elegaic, slightly pained tone will be familiar to readers of Bryson's book on England, Notes from a Small Island, in which he similarly bemoans the de-quainting of his adopted homeland. Bryson would, I think, be pleased that in Wisconsin there are still children who sing about the local soil.

Bryson reads well, although it's amusing to hear him lapse into Britishisms (for example, saying "jacket potatoes" instead of "baked potatoes," or rounding off questions with a distinctly English inflection) while talking about Midwestern America in the 1950s. There is some swearing, and (near the end of the book) quite a bit of smoking and drinking (and theft) of cheap beer.

I was born at the tail end of the baby boom, and grew up within the orbit of a small city (Ithaca, New York) with its own downtown movie palaces (the State, the Ithaca, the Strand), its own locally-grown downtown department store (Rothschild's), its own unique middle American charm. Although Bill Bryson had his own unique Midwestern childhood, his story was wonderfully evocative of my own. Like all good writing, it's specific but universal. It becomes a shared experience. I was there. And, setting aside their Gameboys and iPods for a few hours, so were my boys.

Bonus link: The Antigo Silt Loam Song

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