Sunday, December 19, 2010

Staff Pick—In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash

In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash"In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."

I can't remember if I ran out and bought In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash after seeing A Christmas Story on cable back in '83, or if I bought it before the movie just because the title caught my eye at some used bookstore, but it’s been a prized possession for decades. If you're like me and thousands of others who love this movie, you'll enjoy this book. The book fleshes out the characters, and it’s fun to learn the reasoning behind some of the throwaway movie scenes like why Ralphie gave the old man a can of Simoniz for Christmas.

The nostalgic vignettes of In God We Trust are grittier than the lighthearted movie. One of the funniest running gags in the movie is the father’s epic (but G-rated) battle with the furnace; in the book, he’s not afraid to let the expletives rip at his wife: “FOR CHRISSAKE, STUPID, I SAID THE G&^%$#N DAMPER!”

In God We Trust was written in 1966 and is the story of Jean Shepherd’s life, served up essay style. The stories take place during the Great Depression in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana (really Hammond, Indiana). The adult Ralphie returns to Indiana and visits Flick at the bar Flick inherited from his father, and they reminisce about the old days…

In one of my favorite stories—"The Endless Streetcar Ride into the Night, and the Tinfoil Noose"—the teenage Ralphie reluctantly agrees to go on a blind double date with Schwartz and his girlfriend, Helen. Ralphie expects to spend the evening with a skinny, pimply girl, but still he dresses to impress in his boxy, electric-blue sports coat and tie with the blood-red snail painted on it. He cannot believe his good luck when his blind date turns out to be a knockout who “makes Cleopatra look like a Girl Scout.” On the train ride to the movies, he talks to impress, rolling on and on like “Old Man River.” And then the light bulb blinks on above his head:

I’m suddenly getting fatter, more itchy. My new shoes are like bowling balls with laces; thick, rubber-crepe bowling balls. My great tie that Aunt Glenn gave me is two feet wide, hanging down to the floor like some crinkly tinfoil noose. My beautiful hand-painted snail is seven feet high, sitting up on my shoulder, burping. Great Scot! It is all clear to me in the searing white light of Truth. My friend Schwartz, I can see him saying to Junie Jo: “I got this crummy fat friend who never has a date. Let’s give him a break and…”

I AM THE BLIND DATE!

If you don’t get your fill of The Christmas Story gang this year as the movie plays in a loop on Christmas Eve, just pick up In God We Trust when you can. It's all there, and more: the Bumpus hounds; the leg lamp; the furnace; Little Orphan Annie and the Ovaltine secret decoder; schoolyard bullies; Flick and Schwartz. And don't miss the story "'Nevermore,' Quoth the Assessor, 'Nevermore.'" It is pure gold.

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