Sunday, April 15, 2007

River of the Monks

I recently read Bill Bryson's latest book, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, in which Bryson recounts his experiences as a kid in 1950s America (Des Moines, IA, specifically). This was one of the more delightful reads I've enjoyed in a long time, full of the kind of loving naivete that marked, say, the funnier episodes of The Wonder Years or the less-serious parts of Stand By Me.

People [in the 50s] looked forward to the future, too, in ways they never would again. Soon, according to every magazine, we were going to have underwater cities off every coast, space colonies inside giant spheres of glass, atomic trains and airliners, personal jet packs, a gyrocopter in every driveway, cars that turned into boats or even submarines, moving sidewalks to whisk us effortlessly to schools and offices, dome-roofed automobiles that drove themselves along sleek superhighways allowing Mom, Dad, and the two boys (Chip and Bud or Skip and Scooter) to play a board game or wave to a neighbor in a passing gyrocopter or just sit back and enjoy some of those splendid words that existed in the fifties and are no longer heard: mimeograph, rotisserie, stenographer, icebox, dime store, rutabaga, Studebaker, panty raid, bobby socks, Sputnik, beatnik, canasta, Cinerama, Moose Lodge, pinochle, daddy-o.

(Well, a couple of those words are still around, aren't they? Just last week at The Store I had to help move our rotisserie, and believe me, that damn thing is heavy, so much so that when we have to move it, we then refer to it by its official name, "the f***ing rotisserie".)

This book was often laugh-out-loud funny, and it describes a world that is not only gone but that we also seem to admit is gone and thus try to preserve or recapture as best we can. Just last week in a Buffalo suburb, an injunction was sought by some preservationists in order to preserve a drive-in movie theater. The only mis-step in the book comes in a chapter toward the middle where Bryson delves into the dark underbelly of 1950s America (McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the dawn of the arms race, the seeds of Vietnam, race relations); it's a well-written chapter, but it doesn't really fit the rest of the book at all, and as such that chapter stands out like a sore thumb.

As usual with books like this, toward the end it takes on an elegiac tone about the passing of an age. Here's the final passage:

That's the way of the world, of course. Possessions get discarded. Life moves on. But I often think what a shame it is that we didn't keep the things that made us different and special and attractive in the fifties. Imagine those palatial downtown movie theaters with their vast screens and Egyptian decor, but thrillingly livened with Dolby sound and slick computer graphics. Now that would be magic. Imagine having all of public life -- offices, stores, restaurants, entertainments -- conveniently clustered in the heart of the city and experiencing fresh air and daylight each time you moved from one to another. Imagine having a cafeteria with atomic toilets [you have to read the book to know what the hell Bryson's talking about here], a celebrated tea room that gave away gifts to young customers, a clothing store with a grand staircase and a mezzanine, a Kiddie Corral where you could read comics to your heart's content. Imagine having a city full of things that no other city had.

What a wonderful world that would be. What a wonderful world it was. We won't see its like again, I'm afraid.

You see faint hints of that old world every now and then in American cities these days. Obviously things will never be like that again, but maybe as we move forward, we will draw inspiration from the best of that time? Who knows?

Anyway, this was a good book. I'm a big fan of Bill Bryson's writing.

1 comment:

Sean Meade said...

my father-in-law recommended this book, too. must read...