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Jean Shepherd

September 30, 2013
Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd

I attempted my first novel in the early 1970s. It was titled “The Biographjy of Stanley Podlowski,” and it was an embarrassment. I rewrote it. It was no longer an embarrassment but it was still bad; bad in the sense that it stunk.

That was my opinion then. I still hold to it.

But I showed it to a friend, who was mildly amused by what I’d written, and he said the plot and characters reminded him of something that Jean Shepherd would write. I had no idea who Jean Shepherd was. My friend loaned me his copy of “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters.” I was hooked. And I realized two things: First, what I had written was something that Shepherd had done on a smaller scale. Second, he did it a lot better than I did.

I became a fan then and there, read all his books, watched his shows on PBS (the one he did on my beloved Chicago White Sox is a classic; I watch it before the start of every baseball season), mournfully read his obit in The New York Times when he died in October 1999, happily devoured the biography, “Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd,” written by Eugene B. Bergmann.

Like Shepherd, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. South Siders have a certain swag, an attitude not found in any other part of Chicago. It’s equal parts survival instinct, tolerance and cunning. In my neighborhood it was also mandatory to become an expert in looking over your shoulder whenever you walked someplace. Most people don’t know that the classic movie “A Christmas Story” is based on a couple of Jean Shepherd short-stories, or that he makes a cameo appearance in it as well as doing the narration.

Shepherd made his name in radio as a late-night host of a show on WOR in New York, and his written words tend to get overlooked. That’s a shame, because he had a singular voice.

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