Rita Writes

February 9, 2010

Bill Bryson and the Thunderbolt Kid hit the mark

Bryson’s works always cause massive upset for me. He writes in such an apparently easy-breezy style, I feel intimidated and as a somewhat heavy-handed tyro by comparison. He has not yet written a book that disappoints or that is not noted by me as well written.

But the Thunderbolt Kid was especially threatening since he writes of things I hope to share in my own manuscript. Can I capture the mood as well? Will the reader conjure the smells and feel the nostalgia? Will my writing bring the compassion and head-nodding familiarity Thunderbolt evokes?

To be sure I am partly transfixed because he writes about a time and nearby place to my own personal history. But even if I had not walked similar streets and visited similar regal Egyptian-style movie theaters, the descriptions would resonate. And the antics he and his buddies survive made me want to be one of them, then and now. Not a small triumph for a writer.

Most of Thunderbolt’s tale is not remarkable. We have read often of pubescent males finding their way towards Playboy Magazine and their awakening lust for soon-to-be voluptuous classmates. What makes Bryson’s review of such familiar ground unique is how it fits with the whole; how he shares his search for female pulchritude, beer and cigarettes as part of a normal life with equally unremarkable friends who are in fact, quite remarkable.

How does Bryson do it? I can’t speak for him but I can speak of him as a reader. He engages me immediately. He makes me feel he is talking just to me and is glad I am listening. He does not indulge in overly written prose with conspicuous analogies or similes, and while he doesn’t insult the reader by writing down, he refrains from using a vocabulary that requires the reader to pause. He just lopes along telling a tale and brings the reader along by enticements to see what happens next.

And that’s the trick. I recall reading Joseph Heller’s Catch Twenty-Two with the same result. Try this experiment if you don’t believe me. Pick up the book and let it fall open to any page. Heller crafts each paragraph to force you to read the next. My guess is both Bryson and Heller edit mercilessly, removing any word or phrase or story line that does not give an immediate result to the reader. I am convinced this is the hardest part of writing and what makes books memorable and enduring.

And with Bryson, now that I finished his last contribution to my reading stack, I am similarly impatient for his next book. Now that’s a good story-teller.

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