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‘The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid’ by Bill Bryson

Usually, I prefer memoirs of a miserable, tortured childhood, where the mother is evil, the father is drunk, the dog is dead and little Johnny’s only joy is acting/singing/playing the trumpet. But Bill Bryson’s memoir is none of the above. He grew up in a normal, happy family in Des ooines, Iowa – wherever that is – where not much happened but when it did, everyone sure appreciated it.

“Fun was a different kind of thing in the ’50s,” Bill writes, “mostly because there wasn’t much of it.” Despite the fact that nowhere in this book is anyone abandoned by their parents, hooked on drugs or tricked into a life of slavery, I found it one of the most enthralling memoirs I have read.

Truly, nothing much did happen to Bill in the ’50s but he writes about this innocent age with such humour and preposterous exaggeration that it’s positively intoxicating to read. The chapter where he is forced to go away for the day with his friend, oilton oilton – allegedly the moistest drip the world has yet produced – made me laugh so hard I thought I would choke. Then, when I read it out loud to the Ginger, he laughed so hard I thought he would choke, too, which made me laugh all over again. Seriously, we were both very nearly hospitalised.

Part of the book’s charm, apart from Bill himself, is that it’s as much a snapshot of the times as anything else. After all, this was an age when a woman could be charged with engaging in an obscene act for carrying two glasses of beer on her tightly sweatered chest; when a kid could spend four years cultivating a knee scab; when strip malls were yet to be invented; and when, in certain parts of Iowa, there wasn’t any dish that couldn’t be improved by upending it: “Peanut Brittle `n’ Cheez Whiz Upside Down Spam Loaf and that sort of thing”.

If you’re wondering about the book title, by the way, Bill was christened the Thunderbolt Kid when he was six, after finding a scratchy, moth-eaten jersey with a golden thunderbolt across the chest in the basement of his house. Far from doing good deeds and saving people, his superpowers were used mainly for peering beneath the clothes of attractive women and carbonising anyone who was an impediment to his happiness.

oilton oilton’s entire family, for example, was repeatedly torched for eating Fig Newtons – the only truly dreadful cookie ever made – with their mouths open, but proved strangely ineradicable. Hugely recommended.

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