Here’s how I rate Bill Bryson’s books: One star for each embarrassing episode of inadvertent bursts of out-loud laughter in a public place. I found The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid to be a four-star, thoroughly embarrassing read.
Bryson made his name as a travel humorist. (The first book of his that I read, Notes From a Small Island, also earned four snorts — I mean, stars.) That book documented his valedictory tour of Great Britain, where he had lived and worked as a journalist for a couple of decades, just before he brought his family back to his native United States. He also has documented his travels in Australia, the American Midwest, and a trek up the Appalachian Trail, all of which were reliably amusing if not entirely gut-busting. Along the way, Bryson also penned several books about the English language, Shakespeare, and the history of the modern house, bringing his trademark whimsy and fascination with the small details of history to each.
In The Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson looks back, chronicling his nearly idyllic childhood growing up in 1950s Des Moines, Iowa. Some of my friends find Bryson’s humor to be occasionally mean-spirited, and it’s true that he has a knack for skewering the least-attractive personality traits of some of the self-important blowhards he meets in his travels. Perhaps it’s the softening effects of time, but there was relatively little savagery on display in Thunderbolt Kid. Oh, he still finds ways to point out the ridiculous aspects of some of his childhood nemeses, but the punches are pulled somewhat, leaving the reader with all of the humor and little of the discomfort.
I read a comment from another LibraryThing reader who speculated that only those who had grown up in 1950s America might appreciate The Thunderbolt Kid. I don’t think that’s true, necessarily; I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s but I still found much to enjoy in Bryson’s memoir. I recommend this book to any fan of Bryson’s or of coming-of-age stories, or anyone who enjoys having to apologize to the other riders on the city bus for bursting out in surprised guffaws while reading silently to oneself.