What’s true and what’s fiction or even fantasy have always been a major component regarding how we interpret Jean Shepherd and how he regards his own attitude toward truth and fiction. And this is true in all his stories, including those about the army. In the introduction to Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, my book of Shepherd’s army stories, I quote him from one of his broadcasts: “You continually see stories and movies and plays about the army, but I can tell you, I have never seen anything that even remotely resembles the real army.” Shepherd more than once has commented that much fiction he’s encounters is not true to real life. He continues the thought in an army story about a young corporal who “says beautiful things and writes poems, and he’s gonna have a little grocery store on Flatbush Avenue when he gets back. And you know he’s gonna get killed.” The suggestion is that this is a cliche that doesn’t actually happen in real life.
I’ve recently re-encountered another of Shep’s similar thoughts about being in the army. He comments that:
“Most people don’t know what they talk about in the barracks. You never see in army movies guys just sitting around–just sitting there rapping. Shooting the breeze. What do they talk about? Whenever you see a movie where they purport to be telling you what they talk about there’s always a scene where Donald O’Connor takes out his wallet and shows his girl’s picture to Van Johnson. You know, that kind of thing. I never once, in all the years I was in the army–and I was in longer than I care to even think about–I never once saw anybody whip out the picture of his girl and say, “Here, this is Emily.”
Yes, army movies and most movies about everything have traditionally been full of cliches. But Shepherd seems to imply that fiction should portray the minor, day-to-day matters such as waiting for your clothes to dry at the laundromat–the kinds of matters out of which he creates his humor. As Ron Simon, curator of Television and Radio at the Paley Center for Media wrote in connection with its Jerry Seinfeld tribute to Shepherd, “The late radio raconteur Jean Shepherd and the master of his domain, Jerry Seinfeld, are obsessed with the minutiae of daily life. Nothing is too small in the detritus of human existence for contemplation. For Shepherd and Seinfeld, meaning is not found in pondering the huge metaphysical questions that have perplexed Plato onward; life is discovered in the lint, that small detail that informs us who we really are.” As Simon notes, their peculiarity is in their comedic genius of encountering the significant in what most of us pass over as insignificant. What a marvelous turn of mind!
The problem with incorporating much of insignificance into “serious” fictional prose is that it tends to take up time and space where the creator is focusing on making every word and incident count–making them signify and be in some sense symbolic of the large issues he’s getting at. In a specific instance of Shepherd’s complaint, on one program, he criticizes Norman Mailer’s An American Dream for inaccurately depicting American Life, as though it was meant to be a “realistic novel.” Not so–in fact, I’d describe An American Dream as depicting more of an American nightmare, a strong metaphor for neurotic fantasy. Much fiction is not a depiction of the events of “real life,” but constructs a truthful metaphor for what real life is like. The familiar problem, as I see it, is that there are different methods/strategies for arriving at different aspects of what is “truth,” and the proponent of his/her methods tends to be critical of differing paths through fictional woods.
As an enthusiast of the works of both Norman Mailer and Jean Shepherd, I’d say that, in their explorations of the America they love, they each take a different path–through different forested American landscapes.