Bill Bryson, in my opinion — for whatever that is worth — is the funniest writer in America. I’ve read several of his books now, and all them keep me laughing, sometimes out loud, which is a rare thing. Few books make me laugh at loud. And it’s over the simplest things, really. I distinctly remember laughing so hard at one point during In a Sunburned Country, Bryson’s travel book of Australila, that I was literally crying. The story was of how Bryson had fallen asleep in a car as a family drove him around some city in Australia, giving him a tour. That doesn’t sound like fertile comic soil, I know, but Bryson had me rolling, let me tell you.
His most recent book, a memoir of his growing up in the fifties in Des Moines, is no less hilarious; although this one is slightly more sentimental since Bryson is talking about personal experiences and those most near and dear to him. Turns out Bryson’s parents were both writers also, journalists for the Des Moines Register, a prominent paper in its day. His father was in fact one of the greatest sports writers of his time, according to Bryson, and I enjoyed those bits of the book in which Bryson recounted great moments in sports history that his father was privileged enough to witness and write about.
I also enjoyed those parts of the book that explained what life was like in the fifties, a time that’s obviously foreign to me. Before listening to this book, all I knew about the fifties was what I had learned by watching the movie A Christmas Story, that narrated, campy film from the eighties. So maybe that’s why, in some places, this book felt like A Christmas Story. The individual stories were different, of course, but in some instances the reader could have replaced Bill Bryson’s name for that of Ralphie, the title character of A Christmas Story. The two seemed almost identical: somewhat nerdy, obsessed with sex and comics, forced to eat gross food. Even the peripheral characters seemed the same. The stern, heartless teacher. The school bully. The scatter-brained mother. The father with eccentric behavior. It all felt very familiar.
But I didn’t mind. It had me fascinated throughout.
Bill Bryson read the book. Some people don’t like his reads, but I do. I’ve listened to several of his books this way, and I think it works very well. Bryson has such a dry wit and teddy bear of a voice that you can’t help but like the guy. He’s completely unintimidating. Like a cool college professor who you bump into at some coffee and who, over cups of hot chocolate, must tell you the all about the funniest thing that happened to him that morning. And because Bryson’s stories are always funny, you’re more than eager to pass the day, sitting at his feet.
And the man can write. He makes language seem so effortless, so breezy. I sit and listen in awe. Some of it, is brilliant. A kind of easy going conversational prose. I’ll try to imitate the best I can for the rest f my life, I assure you.
So get this book. Or better still, get the audiobook. Listening to it is like meeting Bryson in person and becoming the closest of friends. And he, with all those memories and experiences, is an entertaining friend, indeed.