A few years ago—when I was looking for a good book to read when I was on holiday—one of my colleagues lent me his copy of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I had often overheard some of my colleagues talking about Bryson and had even seen some of Bryson’s books on sale in bookshops in Bangkok but for one reason or another I just didn’t seem interested in his works.
Then I read A Walk in the Woods followed by A Short History of Nearly Everything (which I also reviewed for the Korea Times) and I was hooked.
Recently, while on vacation I was looking for a few books to read when I came across Bryson’s latest literary gem The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid. I have been out of the literary loop for a while and didn’t know that Bryson had come out with a new book. All I had to do was read a few lines from the inside flap and I was already on my way to the checkout counter.
This is quintessential Bryson—funny, witty, and insightful. In this book, he travels back in time to explore his childhood in the 1950’s in Des Moines, Iowa. Although this is a book about one person growing up, it strikes a universal chord in us all about growing up and learning about the world. For myself, who grew up in the 1960’s, I can relate to much of what Bryson writes about his own childhood compared to what I remember from my own.
One of the universal chords that he struck with me was what it was like to assemble a model airplane or battleship:
Most things that were supposed to be fun turned out not to be fun at all. Model making, for instance. Making models was reputed to be hugely enjoyable but it was really just a mysterious ordeal that you had to go through from time to time as part of the boyhood process. The model kits always looked fun, to be sure. The illustrations on the boxes portrayed beautifully detailed fighter planes belching red and yellow flames from their wing guns and engaged in lively dogfights. In the background there was always a stricken Messerschmitt spiraling to earth with a dismayed German in the cockpit shouting bitter epithets through the windscreen. You couldn’t wait to recreate such lively scenes in three dimensions.
But when you got the kit home and opened the box the contents turned out to be of a uniform leaden gray or olive green, consisting of perhaps sixty thousand tiny parts, some no larger than a proton, all attached in some organic, inseparable way to plastic stalks like swizzle sticks. The tubes of glue by contrast were the size of large pastry tubes. No matter how gently you depressed them they would blurp out a pint or so of a clear viscous goo whose one instinct was to attach itself to some foreign object—a human finger, the living room drapes, the fur of a passing animal—and become an indefinitely long string.
Any attempt to break the string resulted in the creation of more strings. Within moments you would be attached to hundreds of sagging strands, all connected to something that had nothing to do with model airplanes or the Second World War. The only thing the glue wouldn’t stick to, interestingly, was a piece of plastic model; then it just became a slippery lubricant that allowed any two pieces of model to glide endlessly over each other, never drying. The upshot was that after about forty minutes of intensive but troubled endeavor you and your immediate surroundings were covered in a glistening spider’s web of glue at the heart of which was a gray fuselage with one wing on upside down and a pilot accidentally but irremediably attached by his flying cap to the cockpit ceiling. Happily by this point you were so high on the glue that you didn’t give a shit about the pilot, the model or anything else.
Yeah, this is some funny stuff and Bryson knows how to tickle our funny bones, but at the same time has us waxing nostalgic a bit as we look back on our own lives.