“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”
Since 1983, this phrase has become synonymous with the determination to have the best Christmas ever thanks to a little movie that has become a modern classic: A Christmas Story. And if it’s one thing a bookworm like myself enjoys, it’s seeking out the original stories behind the films I love most. Why I’ve never done this before now is beyond me, but it was high time I corrected this oversight.
Jean Shepherd started as a radio personality, spinning his yarns about a semi-biographical (though he claimed completely fictitious) childhood in Depression Era Indiana. Ultimately it was Shel Silverstein who got him to commit his stories to book form by having him narrate into a microphone and having them transcribed. This book was originally published in 1966 under the title In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. It’s still considered to be Shepherd’s most important work. It, as with all of his other books, are not novels, though on the surface they appear to be. They are, in fact, a collection of short stories that may or may not intertwine through their common characters and incidents. The film A Christmas Story actually took most of the elements in this and wove it into a more tightly-knit tale, so for those of us with an insane love and knowledge of that film, this book may appear a bit jarring right out of the gate. But as any veteran bibliophile knows, the movie is not the book, and the book must always be judged on its own merits. It’s really hard to do that sometimes when a film is practically a part of your genetic makeup, but I strive for such things anyway. And I’ve found that practice over the years has made this a little easier than I might have initially feared. Though now separated into different tales, and though the details may differ, I found this collection to be every bit the comedic charmer as its celluloid companion piece…
… except for the finale tale.
The story of the next door neighbors, the Bumpus family, is… well, it’s not exactly for the faint of heart. They are hillbillies of the most basic, offensive stereotype you can possibly imagine. And I can’t say any of it isn’t based in fact. Having lived out in the country for many of my formative years, and having quite a bit of extended family that pretty much stepped right out of this book and into the annals of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” I hold no offenses personally and take the story pretty much at face value, regardless of how ridiculous it seems. As I say, I know those people. They are the neighbors from hell. The only thing I don’t buy is the sudden, abrupt ending that relieved our heroes from their torment. But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen. At any rate, the telling is pretty vivid in its disgusting detail, so much so that I cringe at the sounds and smells generated in my memory.
Still, it makes for a good story, if you can keep your food down.
On the whole, I’m rather pleased I finally acquired this, and I’m more pleased to have done so in audio given how these were “written” as told narratives from the outset, much like Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion stories of Lake Wobegon. I’d have preferred it if the author (who also narrated the film) had narrated this, but you can’t have everything. Dick Cavett did an admirable job this time around. Audible does have other titles written and narrated by this author. I’m officially curious now after this experience.