My first impression of Jean Shepherd was The Phantom of the Open Hearth. I was 11, and my mom was about to send me to bed when it came on PBS late on a Sunday night around Christmas. We laughed ourselves silly from beginning to end, past midnight. I've been a Jean Shepherd fan ever since.
Josephine is the story of Ralph (the same Ralph from A Christmas Story) Parker's first serious romance with his new Polish neighbor. All of Shepherd's favorites are here: Randy, Flick, Schwartz, mom, The Old Man. After his initial scare that their new neighbors might be the returning Bumpus Clan, Ralph finds Josephine an exotic and mysterious Polish girl, like the ones he, Flick and Schwartz scope in East Chicago. After watching her from the shadows for some time, Ralph makes his move at the butcher shop, and finds a willing partner in Josephine.
In typical Shepherd fashion, several stories are weaved together in this narrative: it's Thanksgiving, and whiney Randy finds himself cast as a turkey in the school play, which turns out to be the highlight of his entire life. The Old Man has his eye on a sexy yellow Buick at Friendly Fred's Used Cars, which, of course, turns out to be a lemon, and from which Mom exacts her revenge. The Hohman basketball team goes against rivals Horace Mann in the game of the season, in which slippery Flick bets against the home team (and loses).
Ralph discovers almost too late that Josephine is not just a high school romance, but has her eye on him FOR KEEPS! In a dramatic escape which pits him against her Notre Dame football hero brothers Stosh and Alex, Ralph barely escapes the world of adulthood and responsibility to rejoin his pals at the basketball game in time to see Hohman High win against Horace Mann.
This is classic Jean Shepherd comedy: full of Americana past which remains accessible and hilarious because it taps into a deeper, more enduring aspect of America, one which remains impervious to political whims and popular trends.
If you can find a copy, show it to your kids. They will find it familiar and funny, too. While you're at it, make sure you see The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, as well as The Phantom of the Open Hearth. These are very tough videos to find. Failing that, get copies of Shepherd's books. At least they're still in print
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