AUTHOR REVISITS ROOTS - June 3, 2006
By KILEY MILLER
WINFIELD Bill Bryson is famous.
Just not here.
He writes bestselling travelogues.
That's news to local folks.
They are so funny there should be a warning on the jackets: "Do not read if you have a heart condition or while sucking on hard candy."
You don't say?
Bryson grew up in Des Moines and spent boyhood summers with his grandparents in Winfield. He was back Friday with a British television crew shooting footage for a program to air when his new memoir hits shelves this fall.
"The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," will include a full chapter about those lemonade-and-baseball summers at grandma and grandpa's house.
But down at Pork's diner, Bryson's name didn't ring many bells.
"I've never heard of him," a waitress said.
Customer Ginny Sparrow just shrugged her shoulders.
"I don't know who he is. But I'm not from here originally."
It was the same at Casey's. The girl behind the counter couldn't identify Bryson. Neither could the gal making pizzas, nor the guy pumping gas.
Anita Peters, a Winfield lifer, got close. "He was an editor for the Des Moines Register."
Actually, that was his dad, Bill Sr. And the job was sportswriter for the Des Moines Tribune.
Thank goodness for the local historical society.
Board member Judith Robinette knew about Bryson. "We even had him in our window of notable Winfieldians a few years ago for Crooked Creek (Days)."
Bryson, 54, has lived in England for most of the past three decades. He returns to Des Moines several times a year to see his mother, but until detouring through here last winter, he had not been back to this area since his grandmother's funeral in the 1970s.
"To me, Winfield was the perfect little town," he said. "In my memory, this was as good as life could be."
There were potlucks and church socials, ball games and jaunts to the grocery store. Bryson's grandfather was a mail carrier, and he "knew everyone."
In many ways, that Winfield is gone now. People here might buy vegetables in Mount Pleasant, collect a paycheck in Burlington and find fun in Iowa City or beyond.
The camera crew caught Bryson strolling the main drag and peering in storefront windows. Along the way, he described the town of his boyhood and the changes that four decades have wrought in a voice speckled with the endearing sounds of England.
Brits who watch "The South Bank Show," a "leading arts program," according to one production assistant, should get the stereotypes about America's middle confirmed. With the cameras rolling, a pair of combines the size of private islands led a convoy of farm implements straight through town.
It was a stereotype in three dimensions, but Bryson was struck more by the hustle of cars and trucks on the street.
"In one sense, it's very nice to see the town still going," he said. "... But it's taking place in an environment that really is not quite as well-rounded as it was. It's really not the same place."
That's pretty somber stuff from a writer the San Francisco Examiner has called "pound-on-the-floor, snort-root-beer-out-of-your-nose funny."
Bryson's books are catalogues of the curious. From Europe to Australia and beyond, he turns another places' peculiarities into microscopes through which readers can take a tighter look at their own particular spots in the world.
By the time "A Walk in the Woods," his take on hiking the Appalachian Trail, set up shop on U.S. bestseller lists in 2000, Bryson was already wildly popular in Great Britain.
"He's massively famous," said Gama Martin, part of the television crew.
Bryson wandered away from travel writing in 2003 with "A Short History of Nearly Everything" a book that is exactly what its title claims. The New York Times called it "a modern classic."
While he's focused on childhood for now, Bryson hopes to break out the walking shoes again one day.
"I've always wanted to do a book about Canada. Except absolutely nobody wants to read a book about Canada. ... Not even Canadians."
There it is, at last that famously friendly wit: "So humorous and so affectionate that those being ridiculed are laughing too hard to take offense," a Wall Street Journal reviewer once wrote.
Bryson's warm-hearted orneriness flashed again when the title for his memoir came up.
"I don't usually talk about my super powers," he said.
Bill Sr. nicknamed his son The Thunderbolt Kid after watching him streak through the house in a costume that might have merged a football helmet and a beach towel cape, but without a doubt included an old T-shirt with a lightning bolt on the front.
Bryson has mentioned Winfield in his writing before. One regular in the caffeine-and-criticism crowd at Pork's recognized the author's name after a few hints, then accused him of being "not too kind" to the community.
It seems unlikely that complaint will get repeated when "Thunderbolt Kid" is released in October. Bryson clearly loves his dad's old hometown.
With a producer and director prodding him toward the quaint, quirky Winfield Museum, the "massively famous" writer of all things interesting didn't have much time to talk about the chapter on his grandparents in his coming book.
But it's a safe bet it will be funny and nostalgic. And it's a sure bet it will be running over with small-town details.
"I really do think Iowa in the '50s was perfect," Bryson said.