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One exhilarating summer brought to fact-filled life

by Christopher Bray

The Observer

It had to happen. After books about individual decades came books about individual years. Now we get the book about a single season. Bill Bryson’s “One Summer” is the story of just four months — June to September 1927 — in the life of America. Four crucial months, needless to say — four months in which, Bryson contends, his homeland came to dominate the world in everything from banking to baseball and talkies to telly.

ONE SUMMER: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson. Doubleday, 2013, 557 pp., $28.95 (hardcover)

In anyone else’s hands, it should be said, this book could be an almighty mess — a circus without a ringmaster. But few writers of nonfiction, and, let’s be honest, few enough writers of novels, can crack the narrative whip like Bryson. “One Summer” fairly whirls along. Bryson moves his cast of colorful characters around with such silky efficiency you don’t mind that too many of them aren’t doing anything very interesting.

In chapter one, for instance, we meet a housewife, Ruth Snyder, and her corset salesman lover, Judd Gray. Together they have bumped off Snyder’s husband, stoving his head in with a sash-cord weight. A giant burglar with a foreign accent did it, Snyder tells the cops, though they aren’t listening. They’re more interested in why there is no sign of a break-in, not to mention the double indemnity insurance policy Snyder has just “tricked her unsuspecting hubby into signing.” It’s a fun story (so much fun the writer James M. Cain used it as the basis of two of his stories — “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and, of course, “Double Indemnity”), but quite what Bryson believes its impact beyond pulp novels is, I’m not sure.

Fortunately, the two hinges on which Bryson hangs his story are sturdy enough to carry all this surplus weight. First up is Charles Lindbergh, who in May 1927 became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane. Sure, the story of The Spirit of St. Louis is familiar (so familiar you can’t help wondering if “One Summer” ‘s fidgety, catch-all form came into being in order to disguise the fact), but Bryson tells it with such brio that you don’t really mind.

The same goes double for the chapters on Babe Ruth. Even nonbaseball fans will be wowed by Bryson’s account of his astonishing summer — astonishing not just because he hit 60 home runs (a record not beaten for more than a third of a century), but because at 35, Ruth ought to have been far over the hill. How did he do it? With “a combination of power and timing so focused and potent that it generated 8,000 pounds of force … and, in the space of one thousandth of a second — the duration of contact — through the miracle of physics it converted the sizzling zip of an incoming 90-mph baseball into an outgoing spheroid launched cloudward at 110 mph.”

“One Summer” is full of such exhilarating, fact-filled fun. Here are just a few of the things I learned from it. Sausages retain their heat longer than any other cooked meat product — hence the hot dog. The presidents’ eyes on Mount Rushmore are wide enough to accommodate a car lengthwise. The masts on skyscrapers were designed for airships to moor up at. In order to keep the weight in his plane down Lindbergh trimmed the white edges off his maps. When George V met Lindbergh he asked him not that most traditional of royal questions about whether he had come far but how he had managed to pee while doing so.

No, it’s not earth-shattering stuff, but I suspect Bryson is wise to the fact. Once Lindbergh had crossed the Atlantic, Bryson tells us, America needed another “sublimely pointless distraction.” Enter Shipwreck Kelly, a Manhattan sailor who climbed to the top of a 50-foot (15-meter) flagpole on the roof of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel and … sat there … And sat there … And sat there … And people flocked to see him.

Just as they’ll flock to buy “One Summer,” surely the most sublime distraction published this year.