Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | Reviews

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

By Tina Owen
An internationally acclaimed travel writer returns to familiar territory in Iowa.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson, Broadway Books, 270 pp, $25

Bill Bryson starts one of his best-sellers with the droll statement, "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." If any of his fellow Iowans took exception to that comment, Bryson has crafted a charming and heartfelt apology in the form of his latest book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

In this nostalgic memoir, Bryson recounts his childhood adventures in Iowa's capital in the 1950s and '60s, before he left the state for a new life, a new home, and phenomenal success in foreign lands. With his trademark mix of humor and facts, he recreates the weird and wonderful time that was America in the 1950s. It was an Innocent Age, a Golden Age, the Atomic Age.

It was, as he notes, the "last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or a waffle iron." On screen, the Lone Ranger or Roy Rogers "shot the pistols out of bad people's hands and then knocked them down with a punch."

In this bountiful age of plenty, Americans earned, owned, and ate more than any other nation in the world. They drove 19-foot Lincolns, marveled at television in color, and looked forward to a gleaming Jetsons-like lifestyle in the near future. At the same time, people peered under their beds for lurking Reds and fixated about nuclear war (schools would enact civil defense drills in which children "dropped to the floor and parked themselves like little cars under their desks").

It was an era without homogenized fast food or sterile shopping malls, a time when towns reveled in their unique identities. Des Moines literally was a city like no other. People ate at Bishops cafeteria downtown or feasted at George the Chilli King. They shopped at Frankels' clothing store, the Shops Building on Walnut Street, or Younkers—home to Iowa's first escalators and air-conditioning. In those happy, carefree days, "kids were pushed out the door at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding."

As the Thunderbolt Kid—an imaginary superhero alter-ego he devised during his childhood—Bryson amused himself with ThunderVision, a laser-like beam that could vaporize neighborhood bullies, annoying teachers, and other assorted morons. Now that he's all grown up, Bryson has no further need of ThunderVision. His penetrating insights offer an evocative glimpse into the hearts, minds, and lives of his fellow Iowans.

Put aside the gloriously apt descriptions and the snort-with-laughter witticisms, though, and this book reads like a bittersweet elegy to the Des Moines, the Iowa, the America that no longer exists.

"What a wonderful world it was," says Bryson. "We won't see its like again, I'm afraid." For once, this marvelous writer isn't kidding.