“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!” For many people, this phrase is an integral part of annual Christmas festivities, thanks to the wildly popular movie A Christmas Story. What you may not know is that the beloved movie is based on a book: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd. In fact, the narrator/adult Ralphie voice in the movie is Jean Shepherd himself! The novel is a collection of anecdotes and memories held together by an overarching story. In it, Ralph Parker has returned home to Hohman, Indiana, the town where he grew up during the Depression, and stopped at a bar for a drink. Remember Flick, the kid in the movie who gets his tongue stuck to a pole? Turns out, he is the bartender and he and Ralph spend an evening reminiscing about the hijinks of their childhoods.
Four of the stories in the book directly became events in the film: Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder BB Gun, his fight with bully Grover Dill, his disappointing experience with Little Orphan Annie’s Secret Circle, and (my personal favorite) the saga of the Major Award/Leg Lamp. All of these incidents are told with Shepherd’s signature wry humor and wit. All are absolutely hysterical. Reading these stories is a treat because they recount the events adapted for the film, but in further detail and depth. For example, did you ever wonder why the Major Award is a lamp shaped like a leg? In the story “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award That Heralded the Birth of Pop Art”, Shepherd explains that the puzzle competition that The Old Man won was sponsored by Nehi Soda, a company that had a stockinged woman’s leg as a logo. Shepherd’s tone and sense of humor in this story are pitch-perfect. He is able to convey The Old Man’s excitement and pride in having won the puzzle competition in a way that makes the whole things seem equal parts epic and ridiculous. The tension is palpable as events lead up to the climax of the story: Ralph’s mother accidentally/on purpose destroying the sexy lamp and The Old Man’s accusation that she was “ALWAYS JEALOUS OF THAT LAMP!”
Besides the portions that contributed to A Christmas Story, many of the other stories in the book are hysterical and memorable. One of my favorites is “Ludlow Kissel and the Dago Bomb That Struck Back”, a Fourth of July tale about Ralph’s drunkard neighbor buying the largest firework rocket anyone has ever seen and attempting to set it off in his front yard; naturally, things go terribly awry. Shepherd’s droll tone in describing an historic event in the town of Hohman had me laughing out loud; lines like “[Ludlow Kissel] had disappeared into his house to prepare for his massive statement of Patriotism” are wonderfully deadpan. Shepherd paints the scene vividly of a crowd of onlookers gathering to witness as Ludlow drunkenly fumbles to light the fuse, loses control of the rocket, and ends up shooting it off directly at his own house. This event is one that goes down in “the pages of local Folk history forever.” In a sense, that is what all of these stories are: the fictional folk history of Hohman, Indiana during the Depression. Each has the feeling of a memory or event that has been re-hashed and passed down among the people and families of Hohman.
Fans of A Christmas Story will love to read more adventures from the life of Ralphie Parker. But even if you aren’t the kind of person that watches the movie back-to-back five times on Christmas, this book is a gem. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash is an uproarious, farcical comedy and a fun look at Americana and nostalgia, perfect for fans of David Sedaris and James Thurber.
In God We Trust, Shepherd's wildly witty reunion with his Indiana hometown, disproves the adage "You can never go back." Bending the ear of Flick, his childhood-buddy-turned-bartender, Shepherd recalls passionately his genuine Red Ryder BB gun, confesses adolescent failure in the arms of Junie Jo Prewitt, and relives a story of man against fish that not even Hemingway could rival. From pop art to the World's Fair, Shepherd's subjects speak with a universal irony and are deeply and unabashedly grounded in American Midwestern life, together rendering a wonderfully nostalgic impression of a more innocent era when life was good, fun was clean, and station wagons roamed the earth.