Each Christmas I re-read A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd. It is a collection of short stories on which the movie is based. I recently decided to purchase the author’s three full collections of short stories.
In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash) is the first of those three. (Eleven of the fifteen stories were new to me.) Shepherd had an interesting way of pulling everything together. He starts in Chapter 1 by going back to his hometown as a middle-aged adult. In a local bar, he finds Flick, his childhood friend, as the bartender. They start reminiscing and Shepherd tells stories. Between each they reminisce some more.
If you enjoy Americana or are just a major fan of the movie, you will love this collection. It would be easy to say that the best stories are those used in the movie but the others are just as interesting. And, you will find scenes throughout and minor occurrences that you will think “aha, that’s where it came from”.
Shepherd’s voice sang through each story. I read them with his rhythm and cadence. Even though he is describing a childhood a few generations before my time, it still rang true. From the childhood guilt you would feel if you got away with something or the joy of getting a “free” gift with purchase (my favorites were the Smurf glasses we got at Hardees.) There is a lot of laughter to be found in the stories but also the heartfelt reality of hard times.
This was originally published in 1966 and read through today’s eyes, it would be easy to bristle at some of his language and his references to women. But, the truth is, I was able to give him a pass here. Getting a sense of who he was, I feel he deserves it as there really was no negative intent. Others might disagree and that’s fine. For me, though, I think you do have to look at the period in which a book was written and make some allowances.
Anyway, I wanted to include a snippet so that you can understand what a genius Shepherd was at articulating something that you’ve always felt but have never been able to put into words. In this scene Ralph has repeated a very inappropriate joke with very inappropriate language to his neighbor. When his Mom finds out, she confronts him and he admits telling the joke but she knows that he didn’t ‘get it’ when he says that one of the words he used was related to hockey (this continued to make me laugh even as I typed this). Ralph is afraid that the hammer is about to drop when she goes to talk to the neighbor. Enjoy:
“About half an hour later I hear her out in the back, talking over the fence to Mrs. Wocznowski. And I am frantically trying to hear what she is saying. I’m out in the kitchen, next to the icebox. This is terrible, because I know I have done something awful, and yet I don’t really know. You know what I mean? You don’t really know, you just know that what you have done is unspeakable. Unspeakable! You not only feel that it was unspeakable, you feel untouchable. I mean, you’re just really rotten! To the core. You are never going to make it up the ladder of human virtues. You are never again going to be accepted into the race. Ever. You know that sickening feeling? It takes a hundred years to grow out of that one, if ever!”
Ralph’s Mom proceeds to explain to Mrs. Wocznowski that they boys didn’t understand the joke. Mrs. W is crying and upset. Ralph’s Mom is trying to hold back laughter.