- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD

By Eugene B. Bergmann

Applause Theatre and Cinema, $27.95, 495 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

In an era in which mainstream media idols fall and alternative media are hotly discussed, this new (and the first) biography of radio commentator and storyteller Jean Shepherd is particularly timely and welcome.

Best known as the creator and narrator of the perennial holiday film favorite “A Christmas Story” — the story of bespectacled Ralphie Parker, who wanted a Red Ryder BB-gun for Christmas — Shepherd was far more than a purveyor of heartwarming nostalgia. Honing his skills as a late-night jock on New York’s 50,000-watt WOR-AM from the mid 1950s through the mid 1970s, “Ol’ Shep” (as his admirers called him) was an offbeat observer of American life and culture: the Mark Twain of American radio.

In truth he was the founder of talk radio as we know it. With WOR’s signal reaching the entire Eastern Seaboard during the wee small hours of the night, Shepherd found a wide and enthusiastic audience among the “night people:” the writers, artists, musicians, students, and other meditative, non-conforming, and occasionally downright odd folk who flourish outside the life of nine to five.

These listeners religiously tuned in to hear Ol’ Shep muse aloud about the everyday quirks, oddities, and events of contemporary life — and participate in little acts of sabotage against the Day People. In a famous hoax he pulled off one night during the 1950s, Shepherd encouraged the Night People to converge on their local bookstores the following day and ask, straight-faced, for a book that did not in fact exist: A risqu new novel allegedly titled “I, Libertine.”

The next day, all over the East Coast, bookstore clerks frantically checked their files, scanned their shelves, and phoned their distributors for copies of the phantom book, while Shepherd and the Night People laughed quietly. In a humorous coda to this story, within a short time Shep collaborated with science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon to write an actual novel called “I, Libertine” — which is today a prized rarity.

Shepherd was an American original who has had many imitators but no superiors. In addition to Mark Twain, he has been compared to the iconoclastic essayist H. L. Mencken, himself a despiser of safe uniformity in matters of opinion and interest (“creeping meatballism,” Shep called it), scourge of the middle class, and genial curmudgeon.

Shepherd, a critic of middle-class “slob culture,” had much in common with The Sage of Baltimore, for like Mencken, he loved his country the way a small boy loves a circus, as a source of constant amusement and material for telling stories.

Several characteristics of a Shepherd story, whether written or spoken, are identified by Mr. Bergmann as the telling of stories as though they really happened to him, and coming to the point of his stories by roundabout means while weaving a recurrent thematic riff throughout them like a master jazz musician.

Mr. Bergmann likens Shepherd’s story-monologues to “a ‘set-‘em-up-Joe-I’ve got a story-you-ought-know’ kind of weaving intoxication woven by a kindred soul. You will be buoyed up on a stream-of-consciousness sound and bits of wit that give you confidence that you will be carried along, your mind joggled and jiggled and richer for the ride.”

The ride would commence during the late-evening hours at WOR with Shepherd’s opening music, a few words of introduction, and a salute: “Excelsior!” Then he was off and running nonstop, except for commercial breaks.

In the present volume, Mr. Bergmann has transcribed passages from numerous amateur recordings of Shepherd’s on-air monologues, and unfortunately much is lost in the transition of these stories to the printed page. Without the reader being able to discern inflections of the voice, hesitations, and phrasing, Shep’s spoken words sometimes seem flat and even dull.

But not so the stories and articles he wrote for publication, which are gems. The best of the stories found their way into Shepherd’s few books, notably “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” (1967) and “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, and Other Disasters” (1972).

These stories display the quintessence of Shepherd’s style: the easy, conversational tone that draws the reader to Shep as to a trusted friend, the humor in life’s awkward situations, the sudden onset of disaster brought on by someone’s desire to impress, and a not-entirely-comforting denouement. The stories are at once laugh-out-loud funny and uncomfortably, unsettlingly true to life.

Shepherd himself was an enigma: a man whose own past and beliefs were a study in contradictions. Little is known about his early life in industrial Hammond, Ind., aside from the stories he told about those early years — stories he would subsequently change or deny with the passage of time.

By turns he was a chronicler of a Midwest boyhood that defined his best-known stories though he apparently despised the Heartland and those formative days. He was a critic of snobbery and vanity who resented other radio personalities who received greater recognition than he did.

And as Mr. Bergmann notes in this otherwise admiring biography, Shepherd could be pleasant to his friends and fans, and at other times he could be remarkably rude and distant. The very title of this book reflects the dual nature of Shepherd’s character.

As WOR General Manager Herb Saltzman told Mr. Bergmann, “Shepherd was a mass of contradictions. His whole life was a contradiction. He would rail against the establishment— anti-establishment. “I, Libertine.” And yet he desperately wanted the acceptance of that establishment. He wanted to be recognized for what he truly was — a giant comic genius. He never got that recognition. At least to his satisfaction.”

Mr. Bergmann, a longtime admirer of his subject, is to be commended for investing a staggering amount of research and considerable narrative skill into telling Shepherd’s fascinating story. In “Excelsior, You Fathead!” he succeeds admirably in displaying and examining the colorful and contradictory life of the one-of-a-kind storyteller and social critic who was Jean Shepherd.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” and a forthcoming critical biography of Virginia novelist/screenwriter Earl Hamner, to be published in July by Cumberland House.


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