Bestselling travel writer Bill Bryson (“A Walk in the Woods”) is now traveling through time, taking us back to the rollicking, epochal summer of 1927. It’s a journey filled with larger-than-life characters, from Yankee slugger Babe Ruth to aviator Charles Lindbergh, to “It” girl Clara Bow. Per usual, Bryson writes prose as lucid as a pane of glass and often aims for (quite successfully) readers’ funnybones with colorful and humorous stories.
For instance, Bow, in addition to being the most celebrated Hollywood icon of her era, was also famously promiscuous, Bryson notes. She had a slew of boyfriends, many of them at the same time. Bryson tells of one boyfriend who arrived at her house only to realize that another man was hiding in the bathroom. The aggrieved boyfriend, Bryson tells us, demanded that the hidden man “come on out so I can knock your teeth out!” When the bathroom door opened, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey sheepishly appeared. The aggrieved boyfriend wisely kept his fists to himself, and the hulking Dempsey departed in shame-faced silence.
Bryson weaves together numerous narrative strains, following them chronologically through the summer. He offers us descriptions of Lindbergh’s legendary 1927 flight across the Atlantic, an event that brought the perennially introverted Lindbergh worldwide fame he never enjoyed. President Calvin Coolidge, famously taciturn (“Silent Cal” was his nickname), appears often in the book, presiding quietly over a nation steeped in prosperity and “Roaring ’20s” optimism. As Bryson describes it, Coolidge didn’t need to do anything except keep out of the way, and he did so with gusto.
There’s plenty of pop culture here, too — not just Hollywood stars, but also tabloid journalism, flappers, speakeasies supplied by the likes of Al Capone, the rise of radio, evangelical preachers like Billy Sunday and sensational murder trials. For instance, Bryson describes the massive national attention given to the Ruth Snyder murder trial. Snyder, along with her boyfriend, was convicted of murdering her much older husband. In an age of competing tabloids, every angle of the sensational murder was covered for months — the case even provides the plot for noir detective novels like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.”
The 1920s tabloids were so ethically challenged, Bryson tells us, that they’d simply make up stories if necessary. “When [Hollywood star] Rudolf Valentino died in 1926,” Bryson notes, one tabloid “produced a series of articles by him from beyond the grave.” What comes across clearest in Bryson’s lucid, lighthearted narrative is the pure energy and crazed optimism of the era. Sure, the rollicking party would end, but it was fun while it lasted — as is Bryson’s “One Summer.”
Chuck Leddy is a book critic in Boston and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.