I had a busy Shep-day last week.
I took the LIRR to Manhattan to be interviewed about Shepherd by the “Here and Now” show commentators of NPR in Boston. NPR has New York City studios on 42nd Street. One sits in a little room with a microphone and various electronic equipment, one dons earphones and looks through the window at an engineer. In August the voice in my ears was that of broadcaster Scott Simon in D. C. interviewing me about SHEP’S ARMY. Last week the voice in my ear was Jeremy Hobson from Boston and we were discussing Shep’s career and persona. I thought it went well, and I await word as to when it’ll be broadcast and can be heard on the internet).
On the Manhattan trip I also hoped to be able to photograph at the Madison Square Garden theater, an A CHRISTMAS STORY poster I’d seen on the facade of the theater where it played last year. There was a close-up of Dan Lauria playing Shepherd and the words THE JEAN SHEPHERD SHOW, HOME OF THE GREATEST STORIES EVER TOLD. Waiting for the train in I encountered an ad the size of a folded train schedule (and I encountered a slightly larger one by the theater):
The theater at Penn Station had no posters at all, so now my hopes rest on a response from Shep (Dan Lauria), to whom I wrote, c/o the theater, explaining my desire for an image of the poster.
Meanwhile, back home, I’d received a Google alert for Shep and found that it directed me to a great review of SHEP’S ARMY by Tom Feran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who in 2005 had written a really complementary review of my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! He’s obviously a Shep fan from way back, in addition to being a perceptive critic (I’m delighted to opine.) Here’s the Shep’s Army review:
Jean Shepherd’s widest fame today may be as the writer, narrator and cameo actor of “A Christmas Story,” the movie that came relatively late in his career, 30 years ago.
Fans earlier knew him as the writer of stories (some of which were the foundation of the film), host of several public-TV series and hugely influential radio monologist with a cult-like following.
Shepherd, who died in 1999, came to dismiss the radio work, preferring to be recognized for his writing. But the shows are responsible for his first new collection of stories in 30 years, thanks to Eugene Bergmann, author of the 2005 biography “Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.”
Bergmann smartly edited and organized about 30 transcribed stories, and contributes useful notes and an introduction for “Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles” (Opus Books, 256 pp., $14.95). He thinks it can reasonably be deemed “Shep’s Army Life Novel.”
Shep would approve. He insisted his story collections were novels and fiction, though his work is often called autobiographical, because he liked writing in the immediacy of first person, and sometimes called nostalgia, because of the way his kid stories — like the ones in “A Christmas Story” — so sharply drew the past.
He’s more accurately called a humorist, especially for his gifts of comic description and hyperbole, but he saw himself as a realist describing the way things really are and the way people really live. More than his kid stories, the army tales show that.
Shepherd, who was secretive about details of his life, served in the Army from 1942 to 1944, all of it stateside. The tales he created from the experience — unless he really was “the only registered Druid in the history of the contemporary army” — are inevitably funny, but darker and more adult. We hear him talking about boredom, terror, confusion, cruelty and, off-handedly, death.
“Talking” is the word. His wildly expressive voice is almost audible in the stories, all told on the New York AM station WOR between 1963 and 1976.
While Shepherd would have labored to make them a book — he once said that simply transcribing spoken stories into print “is the last thing you can do” — Bergmann’s gentle editing retains his style.
“Shep’s Army” is probably not the best introduction to Shepherd’s writing for the curious drawn by “A Christmas Story.” But for his established fans — readers or listeners — it will rate as a welcome gift. Here’s hoping Bergmann has more.
[I emailed him that indeed, I do have more! He responded, in part: “The book was really a pleasure to read. Having written several “as told to” books, I know well the difficulties and pitfalls of translating spoken words, which only increased my appreciation. You did wonderful work, just masterly, and it’s great news that we can look forward to more.” He also sent me a photo of Downtown Cleveland (Terminal Tower, overlooking Public Square) decked out in all its Christmas-and-Leg-Lamp glory!]
“Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Fa la la la la–la la la la!“