Monday, November 25, 2013

Jean Shepherd: Back after 14 years in the grave

Some of you first encountered humorist Jean Shepherd through "A Christmas Story," the movie (and later Broadway musical) based on his boyhood experiences in Hammond, Ind., during The Depression. Some of you may have read his stories in the immortal collection "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash."

I first heard him on a tiny transistor radio, smuggled into my bed so I could listen to his 11 p.m. broadcasts on WOR-AM out of New York. I was in high school at the time, roughly 1969-71, and I enjoyed his sardonic, faux-folksy commentaries on life's absurdities. He had a first-rate radio voice: relaxed, avuncular when he wanted it to be, ironic and occasionally moved by genuine emotions.

Here's a taste of Shep, reading one of his stories:

He died in 1999, long after he'd left radio behind. But I could hear that voice again as I read "Shep's Army: Bummers, Blisters and Boondoggles." The Opus book, which goes for $14.95 in paperback, has been billed as "the first volume of fresh Shepherd tales in 25 years." Eugene Bergmann, a Shep-o-phile for decades, has edited transcripts of some of Shepherd's radio monologues about his stint in the U.S. Army, mostly in the Signal Corps. He never saw action in World War II, but he makes inaction on the home front pretty entertaining. (They're not consistent in details, but he wasn't a historian. Impressions were what mattered to him.)

As Shep noted in one of his shows, this was the Army experience for countless guys who never went overseas: mosquito-filled swamps, obsessively carping officers, foul food, training on gear they'd never get to use, incompetence and laziness and tomfoolery at all levels. Funny stuff -- and pretty credible, even when exaggerated -- but Shep wasn't content only with laughter.

He talks about a timid loner whose barracks-mates bully him into a suicide attempt, an acrophobe who has a panic attack when ordered to climb a telephone pole, the fools who disregard the report of a German sub off the Florida coast and allow it to attack a freighter. These tales come out in a matter-of-fact, "c'est la vie" fashion that lets us draw our own unhappy conclusions. Reading them, I thought of a comment by British essayist Horace Walpole: The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.

I see we're now about halfway between Veterans Day and the 72nd anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor. I can't imagine a better time to pick up "Shep's Army."


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind comments about my SHEP'S ARMY. My obsession with Jean Shepherd is obviously a labor of love--he was a genius. You may be interested in my other Shep connections: My EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD--THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD, a 500-page description and appreciation was published in 2005. I began my blog about his life and work in February, 2013:
Excelsior! Eugene B. Bergmann