The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir
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From one of the most beloved and bestselling authors in the English language, a vivid, nostalgic, and utterly hilarious memoir of growing up in the 1950s

Bill Bryson was born in the middle of the American century—1951—in the middle of the United States—Des Moines, Iowa—in the middle of the largest generation in American history—the baby boomers. As one of the best and funniest writers alive, he is perfectly positioned to mine his memories of a totally all-American childhood for 24-carat memoir gold. Like millions of his generational peers, Bill Bryson grew up with a rich fantasy life as a superhero. In his case, he ran around his house and neighborhood with an old football jersey with a thunderbolt on it and a towel about his neck that served as his cape, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and vanquishing awful evildoers (and morons)—in his head—as "The Thunderbolt Kid."

Using this persona as a springboard, Bill Bryson re-creates the life of his family and his native city in the 1950s in all its transcendent normality—a life at once completely familiar to us all and as far away and unreachable as another galaxy. It was, he reminds us, a happy time, when automobiles and televisions and appliances (not to mention nuclear weapons) grew larger and more numerous with each passing year, and DDT, cigarettes, and the fallout from atmospheric testing were considered harmless or even good for you. He brings us into the life of his loving but eccentric family, including affectionate portraits of his father, a gifted sportswriter for the local paper and dedicated practitioner of isometric exercises, and OF his mother, whose job as the home furnishing editor for the same paper left her little time for practicing the domestic arts at home. The many readers of Bill Bryson’s earlier classic, A Walk in the Woods, will greet the reappearance in these pages of the immortal Stephen Katz, seen hijacking literally boxcar loads of beer. He is joined in the Bryson gallery of immortal characters by the demonically clever Willoughby brothers, who apply their scientific skills and can-do attitude to gleefully destructive ends.

Warm and laugh-out-loud funny, and full of his inimitable, pitch-perfect observations, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is as wondrous a book as Bill Bryson has ever written. It will enchant anyone who has ever been young.

Customer Reviews:

  • The Bookschlepper Recommends
    In the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century lived a small boy and his alter ego. His adventures are recollected, coupled with the events of the day, to recreate a time when all the skies were sunny and all the evils contained, all the dinners served on TV trays and all the nights cold and snuggly. It is a lovely balance of social history, personal nostalgia and hyperbole. It was a gazillion years ago and I remember it well. ...more info
  • Disappointed
    I was hoping for and expecting the usual Bryson hold-your-sides, uncontrolled laughter. I found it to be a pleasant read, which evoked half a dozen chuckles, but nothing like much of his previous works....more info
  • Those fabulous 50's
    A father who's a top sports columnist. Wax teeth, the Butter Boys, infatuation with atomic energy, and a booming post-war economy. Is it any wonder that Bill Bryson (the second) turned out the way he did? Reading this crazy essay is a walk down memory lane for baby boomers. Who could forget crawling under a school desk to ward off the effects of a nuclear attack by communists? Or the rise of rock and roll? Bryson recalls and describes it all in his typical dry, wry, and deadpan way. I did not laugh my way all the way through it - that only happened maybe once in each chapter - but I never stopped smiling. Great fun....more info
  • Even Funnier If You Read It Out Loud
    What initially caught my eye about this book is the cover. It's not often you see a kid from the 1950's with a flannel shirt and spaceman helmet and ray-gun on a book cover.

    I picked it up and randomly turned to a page, which just happened to be a description of electric football games. You know, the game vibrates and all the little football players rattle around until they congregate into one over. But it wasn't "game over" for this book. I was hooked.

    This is one funny and entertaining book. If truth is truely stranger than fiction, it's also funnier. Who knew that growing up in the 1950's in middle America, Iowa to be specific, could be so entertaining.

    On top of the great material, Bill Bryson is an excellent writer. His tales of the Willoughby brothers are howlingly funny. I discovered they are even funnier when read aloud as I tried to read them to my wife. Bryson is a gifted wordsmith. His description of his elementary school's gym not only brings it to life, but puts you right there. That passage alone should be required reading for all students as an example of how writing should look.

    ...more info
  • Thunderbold Kid
    At his best - again - DesMoines!! Nice place to be from? And parents? Good grief!...more info
  • So Americana
    Bryson writes brilliantly on serious subjects, e.g. A short History of Nearly Everything, but does a very funny take on his own Iowan childhood. Delightful book....more info
  • Funny look at growing up in the 50's & 60's
    This was my first Bill Bryson book after hearing rave reviews from friends about his work. This is truly a laugh out loud book. Very witty and endearing account of the innocent life in a middle class family in the midwest in the middle of last century. A fast and easy read - and you WILL LOL! :-)...more info
  • A Trip Down Memory Lane
    My son has been raving about Bill Bryson's for some time now, but I was not sure that they would appeal to me. After hearing others rave about his memoir: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, I thought this might be a fun audio book. I am sorry I waited so long to try Bryson's work.

    This memoir was terrific. It leaves you with a feeling of appreciation for the simple things in life. Bill Bryson and I were born a year apart, and as baby boomers growing up in the 50's and 60's, I found this memoir to be a trip down memory lane. He talks about his mom's bad cooking, his strange relatives, going to the store for penny candy (candy cigarettes), playing outdoors until dark, first crushes, Saturday at the movies, loss of innocence etc. He could be describing a whole lot of baby boomers in this memoir. This book is hysterical, and there were many times I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. The audio version is highly recommended....more info
  • Fun for those born in the 50's or 60's
    Bill Bryson's books is a fun read for anyone who has memories of his or her own of life in the 50's and 60's. The author is overly critical at times of his parents, but his comments make for some hilarious reading. Best for a reader who wants to relive his or her own misspent youth....more info
  • LOVE this book!
    This is a wonderful read.....nostalgic, funny, sentimental, but never sappy. If you are NOT a fan of the "big box chains," then this is a book for you. ...more info
  • Bryson brings his B-game
    Funny, but overall not as entertaining as Bryson's other works like A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail or I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away.

    It's hard for me to put my finger on it -- it's definitely still a Bryson book and has his signature style. But it reminds me of when a great baseball player is in a hitting slump -- you know it's still him when he walks to the plate, but the end result just isn't as impressive.

    If you're a Bryson devotee, you'll probably read the book anyway. Just know in advance that he isn't bringing his A-game. If you're new to Bryson, go ahead and read "The Thunderbolt Kid" -- Bryson bringing his B-game is still better than most other writers bringing their A-game. And once you read one Bryson book, you'll find you just can't stop....more info
  • Laugh out loud funny!
    Even though this is the era in which my parents grew up, and not me, I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir and would recommend it to people of all ages. While I'm sure the baby boomer generation would really find this book resonating with their life experiences, I think its an intersting look at a unique and fascinating time in our country's history and will appeal to a much wider audience, such as myself (I'm in my late 20's).

    The author is hysterical and I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book. It was so interesting to learn about growing up in Des Moines in the 50s - everything from what people ate to how they shopped to the trouble kids and teens got into- it is indeed such a stark contrast to growing up in America today, regardless of where you live.

    I think this book would make a particularly great book club selection and would also be interesting reading for history classes or classes on American culture, etc. I HIGHLY recommend it!
    ...more info
  • not bill's best
    I have sent Bill Bryson's books to a number of friends & relatives. Truly, he cracks me up.

    This was a bit of a disappointment. I was in Nevada, Iowa (age 5), @ the same time he was in Des Moines. We come from the same place.

    It was never the best of times, in Iowa.

    I left the book with a friend who's a sports writer. She didn't know about Bryson's dad, also a sports writer, a good one, & was intrigued.

    Bill Bryson makes me snort my drink out my nose most of the time. This book did tell me who his companion was in A Walk In The Woods was.

    A Walk In The Woods was TOO, too funny.

    ...more info
  • Billy Remembers When...
    It is a constant theme in Bill Bryson's books - he always points out what is (or in this case, was) good and enjoyable about his life's experiences. His exaggerations are done for comedic effect, but also to illustrate a point. I always leave the confines of his pages feeling like I have been transported to a different place or different time. Have we become so consumed with what we have, what we want, and how to get them that we have lost many of the enjoyments in life, or is it that being an adult just isn't as much fun as being a kid?

    I'll have Bill know that because of him I won't be doing my part to contribute to our consumer-driven economy. I'm putting off enlarging and vastly improving the size and quality of my TV. More money for books, I suppose......more info
  • Thunderbolt Kid a great read
    This is great book of light reading. It really is a laugh out loud book.
    I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who wants to relax and have a good laugh....more info
  • Great for Any Age
    I've read most of Bryson's work and have always appreciated his humor and story-telling ability. Although I am only 25, I found his memoir about his childhood in 1950s Iowa to be very intriguing. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, and especially with the emergence of the information age and the ability to communicate so easily with anyone in the world, Bryson succeeded in making me miss something I never had....more info
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir
    A laugh out loud look at a boy growing up in Iowa in the 1950s. A wonderful nostalgic look at life through a boy's eyes. For anyone who grew up in the fifties this is the ticket for a trip down memory lane. This is a wonderful get well gift as laughter aids in healing and relieving pain. I challenge anyone to read this and not laugh out loud. This is Bill Bryson at his best and who could ask for more. ...more info
  • Absolutely hilarious and interesting read for young and old
    Too funny! I was born in the 60's, but this book has given me a thorough understanding of life in the 50's - all the innocence and fun. So interesting, but mainly, laugh out loud funny! Fun for young adults and older folks, this book will appeal to any age who wants at least a couple of laughs PER PAGE! Definitely worth reading, in fact, I have ordered his other books as a result. Impressive writer....more info
  • Wonderful writing style!
    Bill Bryson writes in a way that brings his book to life. I actually see whats going on rather than imagine it. And while he wrote this book with an obvious adult retrospective - he spices it up with a child's perspective also. Everything is "the best", "the biggest", "600 kids on the baseball field" - over-exaggerating things like kids are known to do. I found myself rereading paragraphs simply for the delight of it!...more info
  • Fast, furious, hilarious, witty, charming, sad all rolled up in one!
    I've not read Bill Bryson before, but I certainly look forward to reading him again. This book is one that I set my eyes on when it first came out, but didn't pull the trigger. Fortunately, my wife bought it for me as a Christmas gift this year and I read the book in 3-4 days, which is extremely fast for me at least. I laughed out loud at times as the humor is extremely witty. Emotions moved in different directions dependent upon what Bryson described. I was able to relate to my own experiences to some degree even though I grew up a decade later. This was a bonus and not a prerequisite to enjoying this book. This book was a true pleasure to read and immediately becomes one of my favorite books. I have tendencies to read non-fiction, WWII books, and heavier fiction if you will. This was an absolute exception to that and I'm thankful I was given the opportunity. I look forward to experiencing more Bryson books. Highly recommended for anyone looking for something to bring a smile to their face....more info
  • Des Moines' own local hero in defense of a boy's right to be dirty
    Approximately normal, but at times excessively disgusting, Bryson gives us the frog's perspective to Halberstam's magnificent bird's eye view of the Fifties.
    Bryson's specific kind of humour, the exaggeration to absurdity of nearly everything, can be very funny, but also trying. Boys will be boys, so they do odd things, but when you exaggerate them, they go a bit out of their normal frame. Some of his stories are plain yukki. (eating buttered popcorn in a cinema while peeling something soft away from underneath the chair? crawling underneath the toilet partitions to lock all doors from the inside? watching the man with the hole in his throat while he eats and speaks? etc ad nauseam, literally)
    So the fun is there but not always.
    Apart from that, my main reason to read the book is the fact that Bryson grew up with a dad who was a sports reporter, and in Bryson's surely not exaggerated recollection the greatest American baseball reporter ever. Now that I have resigned from my less than promising career as a reviewer at to focus fully on, I realized that I have no clue why you guys like baseball so much.
    After Bryson, I still don't have a clue, but I learned one thing: it must help to have grown up with it. I guess I will never make it even to the outer circles of the half-initiated....more info
  • Too funny
    This book took me right back to my childhood! I remember every thing that he wrote about and now I know that everyone's life in the 50/60's were as comedic as mine! ...more info
  • not average
    This was not an average middle class family.
    I was expecting maybe a farm family which was more typical of Iowa in 1960
    ...more info
  • Made in America's Heartland
    "Getting into the strippers' tent would become the principal preoccupation of my pubescent years." - Bill Bryson in THUNDERBOLT KID

    "Essentially matinees were an invitation to four thousand children to riot for four hours in a large darkened space." - Bill Bryson in THUNDERBOLT KID

    As I mature gracefully, reading the coming-of-age reminiscences of others that grew up about the same time I did - the 1950s - becomes an absorbing leisure activity. Perhaps I just need to supplement my failing memory with theirs. In any case, several fine volumes of the genre come to mind: Blooming: A Small-Town Girlhood by Susan Allen Toth, Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham, When All the World Was Young: A Memoir by Barbara Holland, and Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin. As you may have noticed, all four of these are by female authors who are recalling their girlhood. On the other hand, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID, by Bill Bryson, is all about boyhood. And, as I think you'll agree, boys are an entirely different species from girls. I should know as I used to be one of the former. For example, boys have a propensity for shenanigans that would elicit an "Eeeuw!" from the gentler sex, as the following passage on Lincoln Logs, of which I myself had a set, illustrates:

    "What Buddy Doberman and I discovered was that if you peed on Lincoln Logs you bleached them white. As a result we created, over a period of weeks, the world's first albino Lincoln Log cabin, which we took to school as part of a project on Abraham Lincoln's early years."

    Or this regarding the elementary school's space heaters:

    "The most infamous radiator-based activity was of course to pee on the radiator in one of the boys' bathrooms. This created an enormous sour stink that permeated whole wings of the school for days on end and could not be got rid of through any amount of scrubbing or airing."

    I'm virtually certain that Susan, Laura, Barbara and Doris never did either.

    Bill's recollections otherwise ran the gamut of those of any kid of either sex from that era: family vacations, the first televisions, favorite TV shows, the nature of contemporary comic books, toys, soda pop and candies, parents' occupations and eccentricities, Mom's cooking, the specter of The Bomb and Godless Communism, drop and cover drills, Saturday afternoons at the movie matinees, the National Pastime (major league baseball), the State Fair, Dick and Jane books, visits to Grandpa's farm, paper routes, strange relatives, and Best Friends. Oddly, there's no mention anywhere of a family pet. Is it that he never had one? How is this possible?

    Then, of course, there's the budding fascination with sex that includes the discovery of Ol' Dad's secret stash of girlie mags and the unfulfilled, feverish desire to see play pal Mary O'Leary nekkid.

    As in the author's other books, his ability to tell the story with a wry and self-deprecating wit is unmatched by any contemporary writer that I've read with the exception of Barbara Holland. Both are national treasures.

    Bryson's young adventures took place in Des Moines, Iowa, a much different environment than the Southern California in which I had mine. But, there's a degree of similarity that transcends region so long as that region lies in the U.S. of A. One of Bill's nostalgias in particular that I wouldn't have recalled in a million years but is oh, so true was:

    "Of all the tragic losses since the 1950s, mimeograph paper may be the greatest. With its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, mimeograph paper was literally intoxicating."

    It's in the nature of the aging human to recall previous times as so much better. Nowadays, as we're inundated with rampant political correctness, discredited heroes, and the pathetic likes of Paris, Britney and Lindsay, I can look back and say about many things, as Bill does:

    "... I saw the last of something really special. It's something I seem to say a lot these days."...more info
  • A great boomer book!
    This is by far Bryson's best. I've read just about all of his books and some aren't as funny and great as the critics say but still a good read. Thunderbolt Kid is the best because it not only comes from an era I totally understand but it's from a boys perspective which is hilarious in this case. It's all true too. I gave this book to my sister who is even older than I because she is going through a tough time right now and she said it was just what she needed to help her smile through it all!

    Just one warning though: Chapter 8 is rather heavy. I don't know why he chose to slip that in (nuclear energy). It doesn't have much to do with the book at all (though he tries to tie it in) and the chapter ends with a downbeat. So, you can really skip chapter 8 and not miss a thing and keep the upbeat mood of the book intact. Which is a shame because this is one of those books you don't want to end. I wish he would've used that chapter 8 space to give us more of his stories of youth.

    ...more info