The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (by Bill Bryson)

I do like Bill Bryson's writing, on the whole. My single reservation is his excessive (in my view) use of bad language, most of which seems entirely unnecessary. But I enjoy his sense of humour and style enough that I usually read his books anyway.

I hadn't realised that he had written an autobiography until my older son presented it to me for my birthday, about a month ago. 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid' is sub-titled 'Travels through my childhood' and promised to be an interesting read.

Bill Bryson's childhood was actually rather uneventful - he makes reference to this in his prologue, explaining that while his parents had a few strange quirks, they didn't abuse or neglect him, and didn't treat him in the appalling manner of some recent well-publicised autobiographies.

But, as one of the newspapers said, Bryson could write about lint in a tumble drier and make it funny. His childhood, in the USA in the 1950s, has a great deal more scope than drier lint... and although it's not laugh-aloud funny, I smiled several times, and found it a very readable book.

Interspersed with childhood anecdotes that seemed very real (although he admits to changing a few details, and exaggerating here and there) is some commentary on America in the '50s and '60s - probably nothing new to readers in the USA, but for someone who knows very little of American history, it was quite revealing.

Bryson is entirely honest about the problems that overtook American culture, and the bad habits that people developed (such as junk food and excessive TV watching) while clearly loving the positive sides of his country and people. Perhaps for the first time I began to understand some of why America is what it is - and it's mostly a rather strange culture for those of us in Europe and elsewhere.

As well as the autobiographical incidents, and social history comments, are some slightly surreal accounts of Bryson's belief that he was 'Thunderbolt Kid' - a child from another planet, who could zap and obliterate people he didn't like. This belief grew from the super-hero culture, found in comics and television, but he writes these sections as if they're as real as the rest of the book. It helped me get a better picture of what he was like as a child, and made the book all the more enjoyable.

I'm not sure that Americans would appreciate this as much as Brits; it does poke a lot of fun at their culture, and the historical parts are probably nothing new to folk who grew up in the USA. Much of the humour in the writing is ironical, or subtle, which appeals strongly to the British sense of humour but perhaps not so much to those in America.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys Bryson's style - and to anyone who wants to know a bit of social history of America in the post-war years.

Review copyright © Sue's book reviews, 21st May 2008. All rights reserved.

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