A charming, funny recounting of growing up in Des Moines during the sleepy 1950s.
Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003, etc.) combines nostalgia, sharp wit and a dash of hyperbole to recreate his childhood in the rural Midwest. Using a homespun, idiosyncratic voice reminiscent of Jean Shepherd, he tells of a generally happy youth as the son of a loving but often absent sportswriter father and a dizzyingly absentminded mother, a “home furnishings” reporter at the Des Moines Register who once sent him to school wearing her own peddle-pushers. The journey includes visits to stately downtown Des Moines, where Younkers, the preeminent local department store, offered free gifts to patrons of its “elegant” Tea Room; the annual Iowa State Fair, where Bryson tried desperately to gain access to the notorious “strippers’ tent”; and the bacchanalia of Saturday matinees at the local movie theater, where candy and popcorn flew through the darkened theater like confetti. We also meet some of Bryson's colorful comrades, like George Willoughby, an adept vending-machine thief who also placed bugs in his soup in order to get free ice-cream sundaes from the stricken restaurant manager; and the troubled Stephen Katz, a prodigious substance-abuser who organized the theft of an entire boxcar of Old Milwaukee beer. Eventually, progress caught up with Des Moines, and even young Bryson's imagined superpowers can't stop it. Holiday Inns and Travelodges replaced the town's stately Victorian homes, and the family-owned downtown stores, movie palaces and restaurants were undone by shopping malls and multiplexes. In that sense, the decline of downtown Des Moines mirrors that of hundreds of small and midsized towns across the country. But in Bryson's bittersweet memoir, he reminds readers of the joys many people forgot to even miss.
A great, fun read, especially for Baby Boomers nostalgic for the good old days.