Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd

I often point out that specific generations get blamed for the life-stage they're currently in: it's easiest to see in the "those kids" complaints, which have attacked flappers and beatniks and draft-dodgers and slackers and conformists and the phone-obsessed just in the last century. But the same thing applies at the other end, as well. Boomers didn't invent "everything was swell when I was a kid growing up in the greatest time ever," even though they currently own it.

I don't want to claim Jean Shepherd invented it, either. But he came pretty close to patenting it. And what's more American than that? Making an entire career out of being a guy who grew up somewhere and claiming that was the best thing ever?

I've read a couple of Shepherd's books before. And I'm pretty sure you know the general outlines of Shepherd's story, from the 1983 movie A Christmas Story if nowhere else. (You might be like my wife, and be a little fuzzy on the sequence - she always seems to assume it's set in the '50s, probably for the all-nostalgia-is-run-by-Boomers reason above - but you've probably seen or heard of it; it's inescapable in American culture.) Specifically, I've read The Ferrari in the Bedroom, Shepherd's mid-70s collection, his first to engage with the modern world because he'd run out of ore in his nostalgia mine, and In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, his first and most central "my childhood was awesome" book, with the added bonus of having been assembled into a fix-up.

Looking back, it seems my pattern is the same. I think "that Christmas Story guy is funny! I'll really enjoy a book of his reminiscences!" and then read it, and then think "golly, he sure does go on, doesn't he?" The books are funny, but there's too much of a muchness, and way too much Panglossian wallowing in how wonderful it was to Be a Boy In Northern Indiana.

So here I have Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, Shepherd's 1971 book collecting eight essays or stories or emanations from the previous five years, and my reaction was roughly the same. It's not a long book, and it goes quickly, but I would have been happy with maybe 30% as much nostalgia and gee-whizziness.

These particular stories are mostly from Shepherd's teen years and all appeared first in Playboy, which made for an interesting thought. Shepherd was exactly the kind of writer Playboy wanted in those days: seemingly urbane but deeply conservative by nature, a storyteller of the old school, mingling a frame story of "I am a sophisticated man in a modern world, concerned with only the finest things" with the pure nostalgia of "when I was a teen boy, on the make, here's what it was like."

Every single story starts with Shepherd in the modern day, usually lounging in what seems to be a bachelor pad, and all but one then sees a metaphorical madeleine send his mind reeling back to the halcyon days of yore. (The one exception sees his mother ship him a giant box full of stuff from the halcyon days of yore, which he then digs through and reminisces about.) The title story is about the Junior Prom; we also get the story of one summer vacation, one county fair, two very different dates, and a titanic battle of fighting tops (the spinning kind) with the malevolent Scut Farkas. The last story, the opener, is the famous story of the Bumpus Hounds, which in this telling is not connected to any specific holiday and had a lot more material about how hillbilly the Bumpuses were, including the obligatory hot-to-trot daughter just out of reformatory school.

All of them are told in the kind of over-the-top writing that Shepherd perfected over a couple of decades of telling these stories live on the radio - he was a late-night host on New York's WOR starting in the mid-50s, mostly telling random stories and inciting little pranks - so they are polished like gigantic industrial comedy machinery, some Sinclair Oil refinery of nostalgia humor.

Any one of those essays is fun. Eight in a row is a little much, though, unless you did grow up in a northern Indiana steel town or somewhere similarly dull. If you are my age - pretty old! - or younger, this will all be well before your time, and best taken in smaller doses.

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