Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson








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Bill Bryson’s memoir of growing up in Des Moines in the 1950s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is packed with laughs and provides readers several hours of entertainment. The Thunderbolt Kid is a childhood self-image of Bryson’s that serves as a motif that pulls together some of the pieces of this book. For anyone close to Bryson’s age, his description of the toys and the television of the 1950s will bring fond recollections. His attention to morons will please many readers. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 3, “Birth of a Superhero,” pp. 60-65:


There are many versions of how the Thunderbolt Kid came to at­tain his fantastic powers—so many that I am not entirely sure myself—but I believe the first hints that I was not of Planet Earth, but rather from somewhere else (from, as I was later to learn, the Planet Electro in the Galaxy Zizz), lay embedded in the conversations that my parents had. I spent a lot of my childhood listening in on— monitoring really—their chats. They would have immensely long con­versations that seemed always to be dancing about on the edge of a curious happy derangement. I remember one day my father came in, quite excitedly, with a word written down on a piece of paper.

“What’s this word?” he said to my mother. The word was “chaise longue.”

“Shays lounge,” she said, pronouncing it as all Iowans, perhaps all Americans, did. A chaise longue in those days exclusively signified a type of adjustable patio lounger that had lately become fashionable. They came with a padded cushion that you brought in every night if you thought someone might take them. Our cushion had a coach and four horses galloping across it. It didn’t need to come in at night.

“Look again,” urged my father.

“Shays lounge,” repeated my mother, not to be bullied.

“No,” he said, “look at the second word. Look closely.”

She looked. “Oh,” she said, cottoning on. She tried it again. “Shays lawn-gway.”

“Well, it’s just ‘long,’” my father said gently, but gave it a Gallic purr. “Shays lohhhnggg,” he repeated. “Isn’t that something? I must have looked at that word a hundred times and I’ve never noticed that it wasn’t lounge.”

Lawngg,” said my mother marveling slightly. “That’s going to take some getting used to.”

“It’s French,” my father explained.

“Yes, I expect it is,” said my mother. “I wonder what it means.”

“No idea. Oh, look, there’s Bob coming home from work,” my fa­ther said, looking out the window. “I’m going to try it out on him.” So he’d collar Bob in his driveway and they’d have an amazed ten-minute conversation. For the next hour, you would see my father striding up and down the alley, and sometimes into neighboring streets, with his piece of paper, showing it to neighbors, and they would all have an amazed conversation. Later, Bob would come and ask if he could bor­row the piece of paper to show his wife.

It was about this time I began to suspect that I didn’t come from this planet and that these people weren’t—couldn’t be—my biological parents.

Then one day when I was not quite six years old I was in the base­ment, just poking around, seeing if there was anything sharp or com­bustible that I hadn’t come across before, and hanging behind the furnace I found a woolen jersey of rare fineness. I slipped it on. It was many, many sizes too large for me—the sleeves all but touched the floor if I didn’t repeatedly push them back—but it was the hand­somest article of attire I had ever seen. It was made of a lustrous oiled wool, deep bottle green in color, and was extremely warm and heavy, rather scratchy, and slightly moth-holed but still exceptionally splen­did. Across the chest, in a satin material, now much faded, was a golden thunderbolt. Interestingly, no one knew where it came from. My father thought that it might be an old college football or ice hockey jersey, dating from sometime before the First World War. But how it got into our house he had no idea. He guessed that the previous owners had hung it there and forgotten it when they moved.

But I knew better. It was, obviously, the Sacred Jersey of Zap, left to me by King Volton, my late natural father, who had brought me to Earth in a silver spaceship in Earth year 1951 (Electron year 21,000,047,002) shortly before our austere but architecturally exuber­ant planet exploded spectacularly in a billion pieces of pastel-colored debris. He had placed me with this innocuous family in the middle of America and hypnotized them into believing that I was a normal boy, so that I could perpetuate the Electron powers and creed.

This jersey then was the foundation garment of my superpowers. It transformed me. It gave me colossal strength, rippling muscles, X-ray vision, the ability to fly and to walk upside down across ceilings, invisibility on demand, cowboy skills like lassoing and shooting guns out of people’s hands from a distance, a good voice for singing around campfires, and curious bluish-black hair with a teasing curl at the crown. It made me, in short, the kind of person that men want to be and women want to be with.

To the jersey I added a range of useful accoutrements from my ex­isting stockpile—Zorro whip and sword, Sky King neckerchief and neckerchief ring (with secret whistle), Robin of Sherwood bow and arrow with quiver, Roy Rogers decorative cowboy vest and bejeweled boots with jingly tin spurs—which added to my strength and dazzle. From my belt hung a rattling aluminum army surplus canteen that made everything put into it taste curiously metallic; a compass and of­ficial Boy Scout Vitt-L-Kit, providing all the essential implements needed to prepare a square meal in the wilderness and to fight off wildcats, grizzlies, and pedophile scoutmasters; a Batman flashlight with signaling attachment (for bouncing messages off clouds); and a rubber bowie knife.

I also sometimes carried an army surplus knapsack containing snack food and spare ammo, but I tended not to use it much as it smelled oddly and permanently of cat urine, and impeded the free flow of the red beach towel that I tied around my neck for flight. For a brief while I wore some underpants over my jeans in the manner of Superman (a sartorial quirk that one struggled to fathom), but this caused such widespread mirth in the Kiddie Corral that I soon gave up the practice.

On my head, according to season, I wore a green felt cowboy hat or a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. For aerial work I donned a Johnny Unitas—approved football helmet with sturdy plastic face guard. The whole kit, fully assembled, weighed slightly over seventy pounds. I didn’t so much wear it as drag it along with me. When fully dressed I was the Thunderbolt Kid (later Captain Thunderbolt), a name that my father bestowed on me in a moment of chuckling admiration as he unsnagged a caught sword and lifted me up the five wooden steps of our back porch, saving me perhaps ten minutes of heavy climb.

Happily, I didn’t need a lot of mobility, for my superpowers were not actually about capturing bad people or doing good for the common man but primarily about using my X-ray vision to peer beneath the clothes of attractive women and to carbonize and eliminate people— teachers, babysitters, old ladies who wanted a kiss—who were an impediment to my happiness. All heroes of the day had particular spe­cialties. Superman fought for truth, justice, and the American way. Roy Rogers went almost exclusively for Communist agents who were scheming to poison the water supply or otherwise disrupt and insult the American way of life. Zorro tormented an oafish fellow named Sergeant Garcia for obscure but apparently sound reasons. The Lone Ranger fought for law and order in the early West. I killed morons. Still do.

I used to give X-ray vision a lot of thought because I couldn’t see how it could work. I mean, if you could see through people’s clothing, then surely you would also see through their skin and right into their bodies. You would see blood vessels, pulsing organs, food being di­gested and pushed through coils of bowel, and much else of a gross and undesirable nature. Even if you could somehow confine your X-rays to rosy epidermis, any body you gazed at wouldn’t be in an ap­pealing natural state, but would be compressed and distorted by un­seen foundation garments. The breasts, for one thing, would be oddly constrained and hefted, basketed within an unseen bra, rather than relaxed and nicely jiggly. It wouldn’t be satisfactory at all—or at least not nearly satisfactory enough. Which is why it was necessary to per­fect ThunderVisionTM, a laserlike gaze that allowed me to strip away undergarments without damaging skin or outer clothing. That ThunderVision, stepped up a grade and focused more intensely, could also be used as a powerful weapon to vaporize irritating people was a pleasing but entirely incidental benefit.

Unlike Superman I had no one to explain to me the basis of my powers. I had to make my own way into the superworld and find my own role models. This wasn’t easy, for although the 1950s was a busy age for heroes, it was a strange one. Nearly all the heroic figures of the day were odd and just a touch unsettling. Most lived with another man, except Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy, who lived with a woman, Dale Evans, who dressed like a man. Batman and Robin looked un­questionably as if they were on their way to a gay Mardi Gras, and Superman was not a huge amount better. Confusingly, there were actually two Supermans. There was the comic-book Superman who had bluish hair, never laughed, and didn’t take any shit from any­body. And there was the television Superman, who was much more genial and a little bit flabby around the tits, and who actually got wimpier and softer as the years passed.

In similar fashion, the Lone Ranger, who was already not the kind of fellow you would want to share a pup tent with, was made odder still by the fact that the part was played on television by two different actors—by Clayton Moore from 1949 to 1951 and 1954 to 1957, and by John Hart during the years in between—but the programs were rerun randomly on local TV giving the impression that the Lone Ranger not only wore a tiny mask that fooled no one, but changed bodies from time to time. He also had a catchphrase—”A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-yo, Silver’: the Lone Ranger”—that made absolutely no sense. I used to spend half of every show trying to figure out what the catchphrase meant.

Roy Rogers, my first true hero, was in many ways the most bewil­dering of all. For one thing, he was strangely anachronistic. He lived in a western town, Mineral City, that seemed comfortably bedded in the nineteenth century. It had wooden sidewalks and hitching posts, the houses used oil lamps, everyone rode horses and carried six-shooters, the marshal dressed like a cowboy and wore a badge—but when people ordered coffee in Dale’s café it was brought to them in a glass pot off an electric hob. From time to time modern policemen or FBI men would turn up in cars or even light airplanes looking for fugitive Communists, and when this happened I can clearly remem­ber thinking, “What the fuck?” or whatever was the equivalent ex­pression for a five-year-old.

Except for Zorro—who really knew how to make a sword fly—the fights were always brief and bloodless, and never involved hospital­ization, much less comas, extensive scarring, or death. Mostly they consisted of somebody jumping off a boulder onto somebody passing on a horse, followed by a good deal of speeded-up wrestling. Then the two fighters would stand up and the good guy would knock the bad guy down. Roy and Dale both carried guns—everybody carried guns, including Magnolia, their comical black servant, and Pat Brady, the cook—but never shot to kill. They just shot the pistols out of bad peo­ple’s hands and then knocked them down with a punch.

The other memorable thing about Roy Rogers—which I particu­larly recall because my father always remarked on it if he happened to be passing through the room—was that Roy’s horse, Trigger, got higher billing than Dale Evans, his wife.

“But then Trigger is more talented,” my father would always say. “And better looking, too!” we would faithfully and in unison rejoin. Goodness me, but we were happy people in those days.


In some ways, only Bryson could pull off a memoir like this one. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid will appeal to Midwesterners, especially Iowans, in a special way, but any reader will find a lot of pleasure on these pages.


Steve Hopkins, December 18, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2007 issue of Executive Times


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