Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Extracurricular #1

You may know Bill Bryson,for his travelogues A Walk In the Woods, Notes from a Small Island, In A Sunburned Country, etc. or for his explanatory nonfiction books, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Mother Tongue, (my personal favorite) Made in America, and others. To my mind, he can do little wrong. His writing is intelligent, engaging, entertaining, and informative- a rare and valuable combination in today’s writing. I picked up a large-print ex-library copy of his Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid on mega-sale at [1] thinking it was a memoir- probably because it’s subtitled “A Memoir”.

This is supposed to be the chronicle of Bill Bryson’s childhood in Midwestern, mid-century America with the emphasis on his alter-ego, super hero the Thunderbolt Kid. It served well enough as a memoir, but even more than that I found it to be more of a book on the state of America and American domestic life in the 1950’s in which he just happened to star. The book is more about the mind of Americans at the time- people’s reactions to Joseph McCarthy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how daily life was lived in a time before cell phones, the internet, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart, that just happens to be told by a six year old boy who fancies himself a comic book style super-hero who can look at people and make them disappear.

I read it in a three sittings- it definitely goes fast. It definitely had its flaws. I think the biggest point against it in my book was that Mr. Bryson gets just a little bit out of control with his hyperbole. Hyperbole has its affect when used sparingly, but here it got to the point where he would try to present actual facts and it would totally lost on the reader who had heard a dozen other things been called the tallest, smallest, biggest, or best before then. Whenever confusion arises in this book, it is because Bryson has not made it clear enough if he is describing the world with the awe of a child to whom everything is terribly impressive, or if he is a well-researched fact that is actually impressive.

That being said, this book was not short on entertainment value. There were times when my snorts of poorly-repressed laughter did disturb my sleeping roommate. When recounting his first months in elementary school:

“They insisted on knowing strange things, which I found bewildering. If you asked to go to the restroom, they wanted to know whether you intended to do a Number 1 or a Number 2, a curiosity that didn’t strike me as entirely healthy. Besides, these were not terms used in our house. In our house, you either went toity or had a BM…but mostly you just “went to the bathroom” and made no public declarations with regard to intent. So I hadn’t the faintest idea, the first time I requested permission to go, what the teacher ment meant when she asked me if I was going to do number one or number two.

“Well, I don’t know,” I replied frankly and in a clear voice. “I need to do a big BM. It might be as much as a three or a four.”

See? Brilliant! A prime example of the perfectly clear, totally astounding thing known as Child Logic. The hilarity doesn’t stop with the antics of young Bryson. Much is made of the bleached-flour all-American down-home culture of the Midwest in the 1950’s. Community events seemed more prevalent and more important to social life than they are now, but if the food really was as he described, you had better believe I would be a hermit.

“The main course at these potluck events nearly always consisted of a range of meat loafs, each about the size of a V-8 engine, all of them glazed and studded with a breathtaking array of improbable ingredients from which they took their names- Peanut Brittle ‘n’ Cheez-Whiz Upside-Down Loaf and that sort of thing.”

The people that actually partook in these colorful dishes were possibly the only things that could outdo them in hilarious bizarreness: “Hey Dwayne,[2] come over here and try some of this…You want chocolate gravy with that or biscuit gravy or peanut butter ‘n’ niblets gravy?”

There is no shortage of moments like that in this book. If you like Bill Bryson, give it a try. If you were a kid in the 1950’s, give it a try. If your parents were kids in the 1950’s, give it a try. If you appreciate American history, bathroom humor, or sighing nostalgia, (or some combination of the three), pick it up. Read this book, is what I’m saying.


[1] If you guys don’t shop there yet, I really can’t recommend it enough. They have killer sales periodically (I think my copy of this book was like $1.60) and for every book you buy, you also pay a few cents to contribute to re-forestation. They have contributed over ten million dollars to literacy projects and reuse or recycle all of their books. Awesome prices AND social responsibility- what more could you ask for?

[2] Apparently approximately 90% of adult males in 1951 were named Dwayne. About the same percentage of females were called Mabel.

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