Friday, November 24, 2006

The Thunderbolt Kid

Bill Bryson has recently published The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir of his life growing up in Iowa in the 1950s. He describes life in middle America at a time when things were about as good as they were ever going to get:

By 1951, ... almost 90 percent of American families had refrigerators, and nearly three-quarters had washing machines, telephones, vacuum cleaners, and gas or electric stoves—things the rest of the world could still only fantasize about. Americans owned 80 percent of the world’s electrical goods, controlled two-thirds of the world’s productive capacity, produced more than 40 percent of its electricity, 60 percent of its oil, and 66 percent of its steel. The 5 percent of people on earth had more wealth than the other 95 percent combined. (5)

Bryson is precise and engaging and often hilariious in his description of the inner life of a child in a cultural epoch where childhood seemed like an eternal vacation, with lots of time to explore:

...Long periods of the day were devoted to just seeing what would happen—what would happen if you pinched a match head while it was still hot or made a vile drink and took a sip of it or focused a white -hot beam of sunlight with a magnifying glass on your Uncle Dick’s bald spot while he was nappting. (What happened was that you burned an amazingsly swift, deep hole that would leave Dick and a team of specialists at Iowa Lutheran hospital puzzled for weeks. (33)

Thanks to such investigations and the abundance of time that made them possible, I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. I knew everything there was to know about our house for a start. I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes. I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dust balls beneath them, which ceilings had the most interesting stains, where exactly the patterns in the wallpaper repeated. I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor, where my father kept his spare change and how much you could safely take without noticing (one-seventh of the quarters, one-fifth of the nickels and dimes, and as many of the pennies as you could carry.) I knew how to relax in an armchair in more than one hundred positions and on the floor in approximately seventy-five more. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. I knew how things tasted—damp washcloths, pencil ferrules, coins and buttons, almost anything made of plastic that was smaller than, say, a clock radio, mucus of every variety of course—in away that I have more or less forgotten now. I knew and could take you at once to any illustration of naked women anywhere in our house, from a Rubens painting of fleshy chubbos in Masterpieces of World Painting to a cartoon by Peter Arno in the latest issue of The New Yorker to my father’s small private library of girlie magazines in a secret place known only to him, me and 111 of my closest friends in his bedroom. (33-4)

During the course of the book, Bryson discusses many dimensions of small town life: the shops, the shopkeepers, the neighbors, his friends, elementary school, baseball, movies, having a paper route, reading comic books, the advent of television, the coming of the malls. He also talks about larger, more disturbing realities: atmospheric nuclear testing, McCarthyism, and, inevitably, the slow accumulation of changes which would re-shape that world forever:

I was born into a state that had two hundred thousand farms. Today the number is less than half that and falling. Of the 750,000 people who lived on farms in the state in my boyhood,, half a million—two in every three—have gone. The process has been relentless. Iowa’s farm population fell by 25 percent in the 1970s and by 35 percent more in the 1980s. And the people left behind are old. In 1988, Iowa had more people who were seventy-five or older than five or younger. Thirty-seven counties out of ninety-nine—getting on for half—recorded more deaths than births....

Without a critical mass of farmers, most small towns in Iowa have pretty well died. Drive anywhere in the state these days and what you see are empty towns, empty roads, collapsing barns, boarded farmhouses. Everywhere you go it looks as if you have just missed a terrible contagion, which in a sense I suppose you have. It’s the same story in Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri, and even worse in Nebraska and the Dakotas. Wherever there were once small towns, there are now empty main streets...

The best that I can say is that I saw the last of something really special. It’s something I seem to say a lot these days. (185-6)

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
is a nice read: nostaligic, informative, and, as one reviewer had it, “snort-root-beer-out-of-your-nose funny.”

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