The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir

4.2 120
by Bill Bryson

View All Available Formats & Editions

From one of the world's most beloved writers and New York Times bestselling author of One Summer, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s

Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the

…  See more details below


From one of the world's most beloved writers and New York Times bestselling author of One Summer, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s

Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and OF his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Humorist Bill Bryson thinks of himself as middling: He was born in Middle America, halfway through the American Century at the very midpoint of the Baby Boom. Fortunately for us, there is nothing average or mediocre about his talent. The Life & Times of the Thunderbolt Kid recapitulates the rich fantasy life and occasional rude awakenings of this once-budding Iowa superhero. Bryson's sly, lighthearted nostalgia will remind older readers of Jean Shepherd.

Product Details

Publication date:
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
1 MB

Read an Excerpt

Burns Unit

The only downside of my mother’s working was that it put a little pressure on her with regard to running the home and particularly with regard to dinner, which frankly was not her strong suit anyway. My mother always ran late and was dangerously forgetful into the bargain. You soon learned to stand aside about ten to six every evening, for it was then that she would fly in the back door, throw something in the oven, and disappear into some other quarter of the house to embark on the thousand other household tasks that greeted her each evening. In consequence she nearly always forgot about dinner until a point slightly beyond way too late.  As a rule you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven.

We didn’t call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit.  

“It’s a bit burned,” my mother would say apologetically at every meal, presenting you with a piece of meat that looked like something — a much-loved pet perhaps — salvaged from a tragic house fire. “But I think I scraped off most of the burned part,” she would add, overlooking that this included every bit of it that had once been flesh. 

Happily, all this suited my father.  His palate only responded to two tastes — burnt and ice cream — so everything suited him so long as it was sufficiently dark and not too startlingly flavorful.  Theirs truly was a marriage made in heaven for no one could burn food like my mother or eat it like my dad. 

As part of her job, my mother bought stacks of housekeeping magazines — House Beautiful, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens — and I read these with a curious avidity, partly because they were always lying around and in our house all idle moments were spent reading something, and partly because they depicted lives so absorbingly at variance with our own. The housewives in my mother’s magazines were so collected, so organized, so calmly on top of things, and their food was perfect — their lives were perfect. They dressed up to take their food out of the oven!  There were no black circles on the ceiling above their stoves, no mutating goo climbing over the sides of their forgotten saucepans. Children didn’t have to be ordered to stand back every time they opened their oven doors.  And their foods — baked Alaska, lobster Newburg, chicken cacciatore — why, these were dishes we didn’t even dream of, much less encounter, in Iowa.  

Like most people in Iowa in the 1950s, we were more cautious eaters in our house.* On the rare occasions when we were presented with food with which we were not comfortable or familiar — on planes or trains or when invited to a meal cooked by someone who was not herself from Iowa — we tended to tilt it up carefully with a knife and examine it from every angle as if it determining whether it might need to be defused.  Once on a trip to San Francisco my father was taken by friends to a Chinese restaurant and he described it to us afterwards in the somber tones of someone recounting a near-death experience. 

“And they eat it with sticks, you know,” he added knowledgeably.

“Goodness!” said my mother.

“I would rather have gas gangrene than go through that again,” my father added grimly.

In our house we didn’t eat:

• pasta, rice, cream cheese, sour cream, garlic, mayonnaise, onions, corned beef, pastrami, salami, or foreign food of any type, except French toast;
• bread that wasn’t white and at least 65 percent air;
• spices other than salt, pepper and maple syrup; 
• fish that was any shape other than rectangular and not coated in bright orange breadcrumbs, and then only on Fridays and only when my mother remembered it was Friday, which in fact was not often;
• seafood of any type but especially seafood that looked like large insects; 
• soups not blessed by Campbell’s and only a very few of those;
• anything with dubious regional names like “pone,” or “gumbo” or foods that had at any time been an esteemed staple of slaves or peasants.

All other foods of all types — curries, enchiladas, tofu, bagels, sushi, couscous, yogurt, kale, rocket, Parma ham, any cheese that was not a vivid bright yellow and shiny enough to see your reflection in — had either not yet been invented or was yet unknown to us. We really were radiantly unsophisticated. I remember being surprised to learn at quite an advanced age that a shrimp cocktail was not, as I had always imagined, a pre-dinner alcoholic drink with a shrimp in it. 

All our meals consisted of leftovers. My mother had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of foods that had already been to the table, sometimes many times.  Apart from a few perishable dairy products, everything in the fridge was older than I was, sometimes by many years. (Her oldest food possession of all, it more or less goes without saying, was a fruitcake that was kept in a metal tin and dated from the colonial period.)  I can only assume that my mother did all of her cooking in the 1940s so that she could spend the rest of her life surprising herself with what she could find under cover at the back of the fridge.  I never knew her to reject a food.  The rule of thumb seemed to be that if you opened the lid and the stuff inside didn’t make you actually recoil and take at least one staggered step backwards, it was deemed OK to eat.

Both of my parents had grown up in the Great Depression and neither of them ever threw anything away if they could possibly avoid it.  My mother routinely washed and dried paper plates, and smoothed out for reuse spare aluminum foil. If you left a pea on your plate, it became part of future meal. All our sugar came in little packets spirited out of restaurants in deep coat pockets, as did our jams, jellies, crackers (oyster and saltine), tartar sauces, some of our ketchup and butter, all of our napkins, and a very occasional ashtray; anything that came with a restaurant table really. One of the happiest moments in my parents’ life was when maple syrup started to be served in small disposable packets and they could add those to the household hoard.

*In fact like most other people in America. It is perhaps worth noting that the leading American food writer of the age, Duncan Hines, author of the hugely successful Adventures in Eating, declared with pride that he never ate food with French names if he could possibly help it. Hines’s other boast was that he did not venture out of America until he was seventy years old, when he made a trip to Europe. He disliked nearly everything he found there, especially the food.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“Bill Bryson’s laugh-out-loud pilgrimage through his Fifties childhood in heartland America is a national treasure. It’s full of insights, wit, and wicked adolescent fantasies.”
—Tom Brokaw

“Bryson is unparalleled in his ability to cut a culture off at the knees in a way that is so humorous and so affectionate that those being ridiculed are laughing too hard to take offense.”
The Wall Street Journal

“A cross between de Tocqueville and Dave Barry, Bryson writes about…America in a way that’s both trenchantly observant and pound-on-the-floor, snort-root-beer-out-of-your-nose funny.”
San Franciso Examiner

“Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“Bryson is…great company…a lumbering, droll, neatnik intellectual who comes off as equal parts Garrison Keillor, Michael Kinsley, and…Dave Barry.”
New York Times Book Review

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 117 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson's books about cris crossing the world and experiencing different cultures are hilarious and even occasionally, touching. In this new book, however, he deals with his upbringing in the Central U.S. in Iowa. Bryson proves himself to be a renaissance man, writing about growing up and his strained relationship with his father. Everybody who's expierenced this, which is many, can relate. Bryson is at his FUNNIEST, WRYEST and most touching in this book. It'll make you laugh and maybe even cry. If you're the sensitive sort. This is one of the three books in the past few months that made me laugh out loud. Repeatedly. The others are 'Dave Barry's Money Secrets' a send up of investment books and Martha Boltons 'Maybe Life's Just Not That Into You' an EXTRAORDINARILY FUNNY spoof on self help books. I hope Bryson writes more books centering on his youth. Although I cannot relate in the least to growing up in this place called Iowa.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In Bill Bryson's The Life and TImes of the Thunderbolt Kid, he makes an exciting memoir of his formative years in the middle of the country. He retells the deailed past of his childhoods adventurous innocenc. Taking place during a politically hostile time, the 50's brought along its own interesting story. As Bill grew up his alter ego kicked in and thus the Thunderbolt Kid emerged as the hero of Des Moines, Iowa by narrating this hysterical comic series of stories. This story hit close to home. SInce I live in Des Moines I really made a connection to the setting. The multiple stories are all humorous and even more humorous knowing the town they're taking place. The authors style is humorous making every short tale have a kick to it. Bill and his buddies did all sorts of mischevious acts around town just to entertain themselves from utter boredom. Bill himself was a man of comedy, he enjoyed being the joker. Bill wrote a very accurate and detailed memoir that was quite refreshing to read and laugh. I hope to read more from this funny author.
imlori444 More than 1 year ago
This book is everything I hoped it would be and more! It was a glimpse back in time to when I was growing up (in the 50's and on). Some of the things he wrote about I remember, and some refreshed my memory. His use of humor throughout makes you feel like his pal, and makes you laugh at some of the weird things that our country went through. I laughed out loud when he described his crazy relatives, but even more, I felt a sense of nostalgia for the carefree way things used to be when we were kids, before the invention of modern toys and computers and other gadgets.
MARcY More than 1 year ago
My husband and I rarely share similar taste in books ( he business, me fiction/biographies), but after catching myself laughing out loud in public while reading this tale, I insisted he give it a read. We both now pass it on as gifts to contemparies. If you or your parents are baby boomers, Bryson's childhood memories will resonate with you. If you can remember the days when parents allowed their children to go around the neighborhood without fear or wish for those times again, you will get a kick out of Thunderbolt Kid.
contact_sport More than 1 year ago
Great book that made me laugh and cry at the same time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very entertaining and worth reading again and again.
nb5newyork More than 1 year ago
Great book. Loved it all!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very entertaining book about Des Moines, IA as a child growing up. Attention to detail was noted. Very funny descriptions and memories of Des Moines.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson's "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" was a great, nostalgic trip into his childhood and youth, as well as my own. I remember the days of tying a towel around my neck so that I could fly like Superman! A fellow Baby Boomer, I laughed and got a little misty at some of the common experiences of growing up in America in the fifties and sixties that Bryson describes in his usual wonderful ways. I love his style of writing and can easily identify with this story. Although I didn't try to verify any of his many listed statistics about life in America during the described eras, I have to feel saddened at how much of our national productiveness has been lost. We used to be a nation that provided products to the world, but now only seem to be consumers. And what's worse, the products we have to choose from are not always of a very good quality, despite the ever increasing costs to purchase them. But if you are a Bill Bryson fan, I think that this is a book you will enjoy. At the very least, it will get you to remember some of the things you did or that happened in your youth that you may have forgotten, or not thought of in quite a few years.
JYakus More than 1 year ago
Anyone who grew up in the 50's or was raised by those who did will appreciate this book. The "Toity Jar" was classic and hysterically funny, it reminded me of my child hood. If you want to start reading and be entertained and taught a bit of history at the same time, read this book. Bill Bryson is a genious. He'd probably laugh at that comment, but his wit makes me want to read more. I bought 3 more books of his after I finished The Thunderbolt Kid. You won;t be disappointed.
annabanana685 More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful memoir and it will resonate with anyone who was a kid in the late 50's and early 60's-especially midwesterners. He paints a wonderful picture of Iowa in the days before TV and internet shrank the world. It is both laugh out loud funny and touchingly sentimental.
SapphirePA More than 1 year ago
This book is SO funny! Even though I am a woman, I could totally relate to so much of what Bill Bryson wrote in his book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. It is an easy, pleasant, humorous read that takes you back to those days when life was simpler. I really enjoyed this book. In fact, I bought it years ago, read it and then loaned it out to a friend. Never got it back. I liked it so much that I recently bought another copy!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
These memories from the fifties evoke guffaws even from those who don't remember them as Bryson presents them with his genius for comic writing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was incredibly funny. I've read A Walk in the Woods and its definitely on par with that book.
FortDodger More than 1 year ago
If you were born in the 40s or 50s, this book will have you laughing all the way through. And, if you were born in Iowa, it is a must-read. I'm a big Bryson fan but this is my favorite. I read it at night and found myself repeatedly trying to stifle my laughter so as to not wake my husband up. I think it is consistently the funniest of all of his books (with the possible exception of the chapter in "A Walk in the Woods" where he finishes his first day of hiking.) Enjoy!
hauptmann More than 1 year ago
This is far and away the funniest book I've ever read. Perhaps you had to be there, i.e. from that generation, to relate to these tales of childhood but I seriously doubt it. It's just plain very engaging and full of humor. I read part of it on a plane trip and just couldn't help laughing out load.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this and passed it on to my sister and then she to my brother. We are all baby boomers but each born in different decades. This story transcended all three. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, just an all around great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anyone who grew up in the heartland should read this book. It's laugh out loud funny!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very funny,, well written, remember of my childhhood Roger