Before the nightmare began

Memoir: The past, LP Hartley famously remarked in The Go-Between, is a different country; they do things differently there…

 Memoir: The past, LP Hartley famously remarked in The Go-Between, is a different country; they do things differently there.

This mantra, often repeated, is accurately reflected in Bill Bryson's new memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, where a picture of 1950s US is drawn which is so at odds with our understanding of that country today that he might as well be referring to the lost city of Atlantis. It's not just a different country, it's a whole different way of life.

On the surface, Bryson offers a witty, evocative chronicle of growing up in mid-20th century Des Moines, Iowa, where the innocence and friendliness of small-town life recalls the warmth and nostalgic glow of an Andy Hardy movie. But scratch beneath it a little and an extraordinary memoir is revealed that invites the reader to look towards the past and contrast it with the society that exists under it's 43rd president and ask a simple but necessary question - what the hell went wrong?

The book opens with an image of post-war America that remains familiar to overseas readers 50 years later: the US has more than everyone else, the US makes more than everyone else, Americans eat more than anyone else. But that's where the comparison ends, however, as Bryson begins to contrast the idyllic sense of growing up in the 1950s with the very different feelings of paranoia, hostility and arrogance that pervade that nation in the post-9/11 world. The state of the union has definitely changed, and not for the better.


Bryson's childhood days are vividly recreated with images of stores that resemble an Aladdin's cave, bullies that are almost likable in their pre-Columbine machinations, and a procession of goggle-eyed adults staring with incredulity at the genius of an electric ice-crusher or a dyed sheet of plastic taped to the front of a television set to alter the images from black and white to colour. This was a time when "if you bought a major appliance, you invited the neighbours round to have a look at it".

The fun the young author had, his enthusiasm and constant exploration of the world around him, makes him an endearing character to read about; indeed, Bryson's strength has always been his ability to make an everyman of himself in his writing.

While the bleaker side of 1950s and 1960s US is sometimes overlooked in this memoir - the moral dilemmas faced by, say, a Rabbit Angstrom, a Tommy Wilhelm or a Nathan Zuckerman - the author does not shy away from recognising the obsessive suspicion of communists that infiltrated the media at that time or his boyhood fear of an impending nuclear holocaust, although worryingly he does find the idea of an atomic bomb "kind of neat".

The title comes from a name that Bryson's father gave his young son when he discovered him dressed as a superhero, an obsession that has its roots in the child's love of comic-books and television movies. Thus, the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson's youthful alter-ego, uses his super powers to vaporise morons whenever he encounters them (which is frequently) and, of course, to see through ladies' clothing.

Of course, Eisenhower's US was a very different nation to Dubya's, but while Bryson doesn't actively engage with the fundamental question of how and why the US has changed over half a century - preferring to present his readers with an image of the way they were versus the way they are - he does nevertheless draw an accurate and clearly affectionate portrait of a flawed but essentially happy society.

When he does get political, one senses a little more anger beneath the sentiment; the author tells a remarkable story about American intervention to prevent democracy in Guatemala that flies in the face of their current self-representation as a people who "love freedom", and when he remarks that in 1968 a quarter of young American males were in the armed forces and the rest "were all in school, in prison or were George W Bush", his colours are a little more firmly nailed to the mast.

It's hard not to come away from this book feeling a little sad. Bryson's charmed upbringing may have been the norm for the times or he may have just got lucky, but such innocence and idealism are clearly unimaginable today.

It's almost as if the author longs for a return to those times and by presenting such wonderful memories of them is challenging his readers to seek their return too. Because otherwise, the US really does stand every chance of becoming lost.

John Boyne is the author of the bestselling The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is being made into a movie by Disney. His  fifth novel, Next of Kin, will be published next month

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid By Bill Bryson Doubleday, 310pp. £18.99

John Boyne

John Boyne

John Boyne, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic