Rating: 3 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge
It’s a funny old thing, time. Gwen and I have been chatting in the comments over on her blog about how our attitudes to books and their authors change over time, and how where you are in your life can affect how you react to a book, from thinking it’s the best thing ever written to throwing it down in disgust before you’re even half way through.
That’s almost where I am with Bill Bryson. I read The Lost Continent, Neither Here Nor There, Notes from a Small Island and A Walk in the Woods as they were published 20 or more years ago (he advantages of being the child of someone who worked in a library). I thought they were brilliantly funny, witty observations on small town America, Europe and the UK, dressed up as travel writing. Neither Here Nor There was my favourite, for its observations on Brussels – a place I know quite well and like a lot. It seemed to me that Bryson was a wry man not dissimilar to Kurt Vonnegut.
I haven’t read anything by him since A Walk in the Woods. My best friend lent me The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid ages ago. Possibly five years ago. It has been sitting on one of my bookcases ever since. When my Reader’s Room Road Trip Challenge reached Iowa, I thought it was high time I put that right.
It seems that both Bill and I have changed in the intervening years. My mum had a friend who had a theory that, as we age, we distill to the essence of who we are. Our strongest character traits and opinions become ever stronger as we shed a willingness to accommodate others. From my observations of family members, I think she was onto something. For Bill Bryson, the essence he seems to be distilling to is that of prejudiced, intolerant old man who yearns for the old days when everything was better. Now, I understand about comedy, whether stand-up or humorous writing, and its need for extremes to make a point. I get that taking a popular opinion and amplifying it to simultaneously make people laugh and shock them is an effective way of encouraging people to think about the world. Comedians like Frankie Boyle and Sean Lock, who frequently outrage those of a sensitive nature, do it well, but they know how to pick their subjects. And to me subject, or target if you like, is key. Sometimes Bryson’s flippant misanthropy hits target in a funny way. Sometimes it feels like he’s trying to laugh off something he feels uncomfortable with, to convince himself that he’s in the right.
Bryson particularly seems to have a need to make explicit his sexual orientation. The preface to the book begins:
My kid days were pretty good ones, on the whole. My parents were patient and kind and approximately normal. They didn’t chain me in the cellar. They didn’t call me ‘It’. I was born a boy and allowed to stay that way. My mother, as you’ll see, sent me to school once in Capri pants, but otherwise there was little trauma in my childhood.
Further into the book, discussing the TV show Sky King, he makes this statement:
Sky was a rancher by trade, but spent most of his time cruising the Arizona skies in his beloved Cessna … He was assisted in these endeavours by his dimple-cheeked, pertly buttocked niece Penny, who provided many of us with our first tingly inkling that we were indeed on the road to robust heterosexuality.
Other musings on the heroic figures of film and TV include:
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 … In similar fashion, the Lone Ranger [was] not the kind of fellow you would want to share a pup tent with …
And then there’s Bryson’s description of a range of leisure wear designed for watching TV in, which includes the phrase:
… and, for the one feeling just a touch gay, an Arabian Knights sport shirt in a paisley gabardine …
Bryson also seems more than a little snobbish about people from a lower income bracket than his parents. His paragraph discussing Disneyland is revealing:
When [Walt Disney] opened Disneyland on sixty acres of land near the nowhere town of Anaheim, twenty-three miles south of Los Angeles, in 1955, people thought he was out of his mind. Amusement parks were dying in America in the 1950s. They were a refuge of poor people, immigrants, sailors on shore leave and other people of low tone and light pockets.
Oh, there’s so much to unpick there. Or rather, no, there isn’t. Bryson has some really unpalatable personal opinions. Which is a shame because, when he’s detailing the socio-economic changes that happened during his childhood, such as when he sheds light on the grip tobacco and energy companies had over the content of TV shows that they sponsored, he’s really interesting and his wry style works well. His opinion on the nuclear arms race in the ’50s and ’60s is a case in point. He delivers a series of shocking facts, not so much about the increase in explosive power, more about the human consequences of the various nuclear tests carried out by the US in various places around the world and at home. It’s stuff enough that it should give pause to the idiots currently gunning for an increase in nuclear “deterrents”, but as they seem to be of a 1950s mindset in all of their opinions, that’s a vain hope, I know.
Speaking of crazy 1950s mindsets, Bryson’s description of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Terror put me in mind of the Orange Terror currently in the White House. Particularly this passage:
In a series of televised hearings lasting thirty-six days in the spring of 1954 and known as the Army-McCarthy hearings, he showed himself to be a bullying, blustering buffoon of the first rank without a shred of evidence against anyone – though in fact he had always shown that. It just took this long for most of the nation to realise it.
McCarthy started his campaign in 1950. On that basis, it’s likely that the demographic that voted him in won’t wake up to 45 until 2020. Great.
As a trip through someone’s childhood in America at a particularly prosperous time in the nation’s history, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid had enough of general social, economic and political history to interest me. Its inevitable maleness wasn’t amusing or engaging enough and I found this aspect of the book slightly tiresome. If I’d been male and of a particular disposition, interested in sport and reducing women to objects and superficially aware of the lives of people outside my skin colour/class/sexual orientation, I’d probably have found it funnier.