Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters
Author: Jean Shepherd
Finished: August 19, 2020
Image from Amazon
They are all here: Ralph (though here he is the unnamed narrator), his brother Randy, the Old Man, his mom, his friends Schwartz and Flick, and the arch enemies Skut Farkas and Grover Dill. These are the characters in Jean Shepherd’s book and movie “A Christmas Story”.
If you love “A Christmas Story” – and really, who doesn;t – you’ll enjoy this group of stories from the fictional Hohman, Indiana, which seems to be based on Hammond, Indiana – a city on the Lake Michigan shore just east of Chicago. We see it in all seasons, including winter:
“We never really had a white Christmas in northern Indiana, since the snow came down already gray from the steel mills, but it was a nice thought. Once in a while we had a fall of rust-colored snow, and that could be kindo of pretty once you got used to it.” [p 192]
“He stared out his window at the seared corn stalks across the road, watching the corn borers destroy what was left of the crops after the locusts had finished their work.
We sat a safe distance next to the cornfield, in the shade of an elm tree suffering from oak blight.” [pp 139, 140]
It is a little harder for me to place this in time – likely because the protagonist/narrator seems to be from my dad’s generation. Jean Shepherd himself was born in the early 1920’s which would make the protagonist 18 or 19 when World War II broke out. He does mention going into the army after graduation, but other than that there is no mention of worldly problems like ration cards. And why would there be in a comedy?
Jean Shepherd is a master storyteller. After a quick introduction, he goes step through step of an event, attending a fair, his first date (with a rich girl), his spinning top competition, or his Junior prom. In the prom story – the book’s namesake – we see him getting the invitation, talking to friends about it, getting fitted for his tux, who he wants to ask to the dance, who and why he asks who he does, his ritual of cleaning and dressing – with its attendant problems, picking up his date, the dance itself, and the dinner after. And it is all very funny.
My friends who have read Jean Shepherd books tell me they laughed out loud reading it. I chuckled once or twice, but not the guffaws I have when reading Jeeves and Wooster. But there are funny descriptions. Here the narrator is talking about his uncomfortable tux which he wore to the prom:
“Do you know what happens to a maroon-wool carnation on a white-serge lapel in heavy June downpour in the Midwest, where it rains not water but carbolic acid from the steel-mill fallout? I had a dark, wide, spreading maroon stripe that went all the way down to the bottom of my white coat. My French cuffs were covered with grease from fighting the [convertible] top, and I had cracked a thumbnail, which was beginning to throb.” [p 341]
So, it is funny, but I was more taken by his beautiful story telling, layering detail upon detail adding tension along the way. I read in Wikipedia that Jean Shepherd was a radio host for different stations and would tell these stories on the air. I’ve listened to some on YouTube and he is great orally as well. But, if you want to keep that innocent vision of the narrator of the stories in this book, don’t read the personal details in the Wikipedia article.