Oh, how sweet it was!
Bill Bryson hilariously recalls a 1950s childhood in Iowa, 'the most peaceful place on earth.'
Bill Bryson is such a funny and evocative writer that he can transform the least promising material into something memorably hilarious. He's written a memoir about his 1950s boyhood in Des Moines, Iowa, that begins by warning us that "what follows isn't terribly eventful" and apologetically concludes "No one died. Nothing ever went seriously wrong." In a typical moment, Bryson describes a school field trip to the museum of the Iowa State Historical Society "where you discovered that not a great deal had ever happened in Iowa; nothing at all if you excluded ice ages."
Yet Bryson's sardonic wit and absurdist sense of fun fuel every "uneventful" page, bringing to life a schizophrenic decade of wild optimism mixed with rampant fear. Bryson writes glowingly about how proud his parents were in 1955 to buy a new "Amana Stor-Mor refrigerator," and how his sportswriter father would hold endless conversations with houseguests about the various newfangled features of the appliance. Yet Bryson also describes school civil defense drills where his classmates would dive under their desks for protection against possible atomic annihilation and recounts much of the decade's anticommunist hysteria, infamously embodied by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Despite the decade's perils, young Bryson felt indestructible. He contrasts the era's "can-do confidence" with today's climate of anxiety: "We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water.... We didn't require child safety caps on our medicines. We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes.... We knew without reminding that bleach was not a refreshing drink and that gasoline when exposed to a match had a tendency to combust."
Indeed, Bryson writes almost lovingly about being bitten by a dog while delivering newspapers and crashing his head into a wall during a tackle football game.
As the book's title suggests, young Bryson loved comic books. Some of his favorite times were spent in the Kiddie Corrall of Dahl's Supermarket where, while his mother shopped, he was left to explore a collection of comic books so abundant that one might "find a child buried under a foot or so of comic books fast asleep." At age 6, while playing in the basement, Bryson discovers an oversized woolen jersey with a thunderbolt on the front. In his comic-book powered imagination, it becomes "the Sacred Jersey of Zap, left to me by King Volton, my late natural father, who had brought me to Earth in a silver spaceship."
Part of Bryson's comedic talent involves a gift for exaggeration. He describes an elderly woman on his paper route as "seven hundred years old" and tells how, after he'd knock on her door, she would "start coming towards the door at about the speed that ice melts." Describing his mother's subpar cooking skills, Bryson deadpans that "you knew it was time to eat when you could hear baked potatoes exploding in the oven. We didn't call it the kitchen in our house. We called it the Burns Unit." Bryson's technique often involves piling one exaggeration on top of another, until the reader is compelled to stop reading due to a crescendo of laughter.
Some of Bryson's humor is based on the politically incorrect obsessions of boyhood and involves gags centered on various bodily functions, insects, and "toilet humor." Bryson writes of finding his father's stash of "girlie magazines" hidden, he says, "in a secret place, known only to him, me and one hundred and eleven of my closest friends." He also tells how a friend purposefully places a bug in his soup at a restaurant in order to get a free meal, and then shows up again days later, orders the soup, and dumps "about two pounds of dead flies" into it.
Bryson can also be quite lyrical. He adores his grandfather's nearby farm and writes reverentially about its rugged beauty. Witnessing a tornado, he writes: "The sky everywhere was wildly, unnaturally dark and heavy and low, and every wisp of cloud in it, from every point in the compass, was being sucked into the central vortex."
Throughout this memoir, Bryson is unapologetically nostalgic, and like so many memoirs, this one may leave readers wondering what is true and what has been distorted by memory and the wistful uncertainties of remembrance. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Bill Bryson is a very funny man who loved his "normal" 1950s Iowa boyhood. "What a wonderful world it was," he writes. "We won't see its likes again, I'm afraid."
• Chuck Leddy is a writer and book reviewer in Quincy, Mass., and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.