Monday, December 12, 2005

Holiday reading

Every year about this time, I do some holiday reading. For the past several years, I’ve reread “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Most years, I also read one of Dickens’s Christmas books. They’re Dickens at his sappiest and most sentimental, but I enjoy them anyway, and every four or five years I’m rewarded for my patience by getting to read “A Christmas Carol,” Reading it reminds me that part of the reason it’s so infinitely adaptable is that it’s extremely good: the plot is impeccable and the characters—from Scrooge to the spirits to the little boy who buys the turkey for Scrooge—are an splendid mix of the universal and the particular. And the moral is truly woven into the story, as if it grew out of the story rather than, like in the other books, being the architecture on which the story is, awkwardly, hung. I particularly enjoy the scene that bored me most when I was a kid, the game of charades Scrooge sees at his nephew Fred’s Christmas party. The game, and the tone of the fun being poked at Scrooge during it, bring the characters and the party to life in a way that makes the details of a Victorian Christmas seem very near.

This year, however, I chose Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the basis for the 1983 movie A Christmas Story, which he narrated. Shepherd, who was a popular New York radio personality, writes short, unconnected pieces about his childhood in one of the Indiana suburbs of Chicago, painting a vivid, somewhat sentimental picture of the Depression. Originally published, for the most part, in Playboy as short stories, they still read best one at a time; read too many, and Shepherd’s voice begins to lose its novelty.

A Christmas Story
incorporated the stories, holiday or not, that are clearly the best of the book—and if you want to get just those stories, they’ve been published in hardcover this season as A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film. But why buy a shorter book for a dollar more? After all, even in the weakest of the stories, there’s a line here or there that brings a laugh.

For example, in an otherwise just fair piece about fireworks, Shepherd says of a town drunk

Mr. Kissel had found his true medium in the Depression itself. Kissel worked in Idleness the way other artists worked in clay or marble. God only knows what would have happened to him were it not for the Depression. He was a true child of his time. He was also a magnificent Souse. The word “Alcoholic” had not yet come into common usage, at least not in the steel towns of northern Indiana. Nore were there any lurking Freudian fears or explanations for the classical appetite for potage that Kissel nourished. He was a drunk, and knew it. He just lieked the stuff, and glommed onto it whenever the occasion demanded. And if the Store-Boughten variety of Lightining was not available, he concocted his own, using raisins, apricots, Fleischmann’s yeast, molasses, and dead flies.

But Shepherd is at his best when describing the world of kids, the ways adult life, refracted and strange, loomed around them, the way certain objects (Red Ryder BB guns) and ideas (Santa Claus) would temporarily assume inconceivable importance, then be displaced by new and different obsessions. He’s like a Nicholson Baker of Depression childhood, luxuriating in detail, elaborate and minute in his descriptions, never allowing his jaded adult knowledge to interfere with the sheer joy he takes in extravagantly detailing the talismanic objects that make up a kid’s world. And his form—exaggeration mixed with gentle skepticism towards all human endeavor—works well with that perspective, enabling him to play wide-eyed and cynical at the same time. At its best, Shepherd’s writing really does conjure the texture and material life of the period as seen simultaneously by a child and an adult:

For several days the windows of Goldblatt’s department store had been curtained and dark. Their corner window was traditionally a major high-water mark of the pre-Christmas season. It set the tone, the motif of their giant Yuletide Jubilee. . . . This was the heyday of the Seven Dwarfs and their virginal den mother, Snow White. Walt Disney’s seven cutie-pies hammered and sawed, chiseled and painted, while Santa, bouncing Snow White on his mechanical knee, ho-ho-ho’d through eight strategically placed loudspeakers—interspersed by choruses of “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go.” Grumpy sat at the controls of a miniature eight-wheel Rock Island Road steam engine and Sleepy played a marimba, while in the background, inexplicably, Mrs. Claus ceaselessly ironed a red shirt. Sparkling artificial snow drifted down on Shirley Temple dolls, Flexible Flyers, and Tinker Toy sets glowing in the golden spotlight. In the foreground a frontier stockade built of Lincoln Logs was manned by a company of kilted lead Highlanders who were doughtily fending off an attack by six U.S. Army medium tanks. (History has always been vague in Indiana.) A few feet away stood an Arthurian cardboard castle with Raggedy Andy sitting on the drawbridge, his feet in the moat, through which a Lionel freight train burping real smoke went round and round. Dopey say in Amos and Andy’s pedal-operated Fresh Air Taxicab beside a stuffed panda holding a lollipop in his paw, bearing the heart-tugging legend, “Hug me.” From fluffy cotton clouds above, Dionne quintuplet dolls wearing plaid golf knickers hung from billowing parachutes, having just bailed out of a high-flying balsawood Fokker triplane. All in all, Santa’s workshop made Salvador Dali look like Norman Rockwell. It was a good year.

Sir Gawain—now that’s something different, truly strange and alien. But we’ve got nearly a foot of snow on the ground right now, so the Arthurian winter feasts seem to be a little closer. Now’s the time to start reading it.

1 comment:

  1. You might enjoy this Jean Shepherd piece from the April 1957 issue of MAD magazine.