Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid &mdash Finished 2010.06.01

A friend and co-worker 'forced' me to read Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir. When I say forced, I mean B. used  moral suasion — I have foisted on her — at her request! — many books from my library, and she felt it was time for me to read something of hers. And so I was stuck reading Thunderbolt Kid.

Bill Bryson.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir.
Anchor Canada (Random House), 2007.
ISBN: 9780385661621.

What an excellent stuckedness this turned out to be!

Because B. recommended the book, I thought I'd enjoy it. What I did not expect was how excellent a read this turned out to be! And I don't mean to diminish the value of B.'s book judgement, especially given that she has liked to the point of buying more than one of the books she's read from my library. It's just that I am busy reading other things — and working and living — and didn't feel I had the time to read something not of my choosing.

But the world does work in mysterious ways. It turned out that Bryson is a very, very clever writer, because the book is NOT a memoir. I mean, it IS a memoir, but one that views with love and compassion and, atypically, unsentimental acuity the fables, foibles and hypocrisies of 1950s American middle class way of life. Bryson with great humour and compassion delineates how the USA failed, even in that golden age, to live up to the idealistic image it has of itself as a model Christian-kind society.

The chapters are set-up by introductory photos and/or news clips from his home town's paper The Des Moines Register. Two chapters stand out. Chapter 4, 'The Age of Excitement'  starts:
 PRE-DINNER DRINKS WON'T HARM HEART, STUDY SHOWSPHILADELPHIA, PENN. (AP) — A couple of cocktails before dinner, and maybe a third for good measure, won't do your heart any harm. In fact, they may even do some good. A research team at Lankenau Hospital reached this conclusion after a study supported in part by the Heart Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
 — The Des Moines Register, August 12, 1958.

On the next page is displayed a Camel cigarette print ad containing a smiling doctor with a stethoscope around his neck and a cigarette in hand. Below him is Times Roman fully capitalized and italicized 36 font text's that claims 'MORE DOCTORS SMOKE CAMELS THAN ANY OTHER CIGARETTE!' 

Bryson's prose to open the chapter begins:
I don't know how they managed it, but the people responsible for the 1950s made a world in which pretty much everything was good for you. Drinks before dinner? The more the better! Smoke? You bet! Cigarettes actually made you healthier, by soothing jangly nerves and sharpening jaded minds, according to the advertisements. ... X-rays were so benign that shoe stores installed special machines that used them to measure foot sizes, sending penetrating rays up through the soles of your feet and right out the top of your head.
Happily, we were indestructible....People were charmed and captivated — transfixed, really — by the broiling majesty and unnatural might of atomic bombs. When the military started testing nuclear weapons at a dried lakebed called Frenchman Flat in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas it became the town's hottest tourist attraction. People came to Las Vegas not to gamble — or at least not only to gamble — but to stand on the desert's edge and feel the ground shake beneath their feet, and watch the air before them fill with billowing pillars of smoke and dust. 
As many as four nuclear detonations a month were conducted in Nevada in the peak years. The mushroom clouds were visible from any parking lot in the city [of the 1950s], but most visitors went to the edge of the blast zone itself, often with picnic lunches, to watch the tests and enjoy the fallout afterwards. And these were big blasts. Some were seen by airline pilots hundreds of miles out over the Pacific Ocean. Radioactive dust often drifted across Las Vega, leaving a visible coating on every horizontal surface. After some of the early tests, government technicians in white lab coats went through the city with Geiger counters over everything. People lined up to see how radioactive they were. It was all a part of the fun. What a joy it was to be indestructible (67-73). 

Chapter 6 BOOM! opens with:
 Mobile, Ala. — The Alabama Supreme Court yesterday upheld a death sentence imposed on a Negro handyman, Jimmy Wilson, 55, for robbing Mrs. Esteele Barker of $1.95 at her home last year. Mrs. Barker is white. Although robbery is a capital offence in Alabama, no one has been executed in the state before for a theft of less than $5. A court official suggested that the jury had been influenced by the fact Mrs. Barker told the jury that Wilson had spoken to her in a disrespectful tone. A spokesman for the National Associate for the Advancement of Colored People called the death sentence 'a sad blot on the nation,' but said the organization is unable to aid the condemned man because it is barred in Alabama.
The Des Moines Register, August 23, 1958. 

The chapter then continues with the US testing of atom bombs in the Marshall Islands, and, most significantly, their largest fusion bomb test on the still uninhabitable Bikini atoll, the namesake of the bikini bathing suit.

In his clear-eyed but lovingly expressed honesty, The Thunderbolt Kid rises far above being a mere sentimental memoir to become a perceptive social commentary and critique of an immature superpower.

A well deserved 5 stars.

And it is very funny!

P.S.: Bryson describes his experiences as a paper delivery boy. And here we share a common experience! Like him, I learned a fundamental social truth from that experience, which is that the bigger was the house that I delivered to, the smaller was the tip I received. And, like him, whenever I went to collect from the biggest house on my route, I was without exception in more than two years of reliable service to that house, sent home empty handed every month. The resident month after month 'kindly' asked to come back the next day for my $2.50. And when I did, I went home paid, but without a tip. Hmmmm. I have been skeptical every since of the rich running the world, and every year confirms that youthful lesson in the power of avarice. The American government's reaction to their greedy bankers destroying their society's economy to line their pockets is to give them a government bailout instead of prison sentences. Meanwhile the average American struggles with the fall out.

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