Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bill Bryson, _The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid_

THE BOOK CLUB that my spouse and I belong to read this for July. Bryson is a witty, likeable writer who has handled a variety of subjects; this is a memoir of growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, during the Eisenhower-Kennedy era.

Since I am just a few years younger than Bryson, and also lived in Des Moines, and also had a father who worked on the staff of the Register and Tribune, this book was like a carton of madeleines for me. Younkers. Bishop's Buffet. Riverview Amusement Park. That enormous globe in the lobby of the Register and Tribune building. Not to mention all the odds and ends that anyone who was a child at the time will remember: Nehi soda, comic books, the communist threat.

The younger Bryson was more than capable of unmixed snarkiness about Des Moines -- cf. his first book, The Lost Continent -- but the tone here is more that of mildly bemused elegy. He seems to genuinely miss the pre-franchise when any modestly-sized American city had a full spectrum of its own shops, restaurants, and amusements: Reed's Ice Cream, in Des Moines, rather than Baskin-Robbins, the Younkers Book Department rather than Barnes and Noble.

Odd how attractive the era now seems, given how fervently, circa 1968-1970, everyone in Bryson's and my generation wanted to get away from it all, or blow it all up -- the martinis, the obligatory hats for men, the tiny white gloves for women, the tailfins, the whole split-level ranch-style nuclear bomb Ed Sullivan Show world.... Now, thanks perhaps to Mad Men, it has this strange paradise lost aura.

A few months ago I saw a billboard in town advertising Canadian Club whiskey: Cold War paterfamilias in his Cold War den (fallout shelter?) with a glass of whiskey, over the legend, "Damn Right Your Dad Drank It." None of your fancy-ass single malts for Dad, you pathetic twig on the family tree! Canadian Club and soda on the rocks, and pass the Chex mix.

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