All Others Pay Cash

By Jean Shepherd

Main Street Books. 1966, 1991 reissue. $13.95.

Radio's origins and its golden age in the 1930s and '40s are the subject of strong histories, biographies, stage plays and movies. But books generally abandon radio at the moment TV came along in the early 1950s -- just when radio came to play its most intimate role in American life, insinuating itself into our bedrooms and our cars, our loves and our fantasies.

The marriage of music and radio helped form the identity of the boomer generation, a cultural and political shift that Hollywood has captured most effectively. The movies have used radio to add instant texture and context to characters' lives, but few writers -- in fiction or reportage -- have understood radio's omnipresence as well as have movies such as "American Graffiti," "The King of Marvin Gardens," "Choose Me" and "Talk Radio."

One writer who was also a legendary radio storyteller produced novels and short stories that reveal the art of radio and the mysteries of its connection to the American imagination. Jean Shepherd, whose nighttime radio show kept millions of Americans awake past their bedtimes from the 1950s through the '70s, told stories that on first hearing seemed nostalgia pieces but really were subversive explorations of the myths that govern this land. Shepherd is probably best known for his writing and narration of "A Christmas Story," the 1983 movie that airs around the clock each Christmas on cable TV. But the characters and situations in that film -- as well as in many of Shepherd's thousands of hours of radio improvisations -- have their roots in his 1966 novel "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" (Main Street Books, 1991 reissue, $13.95 paperback).

In the adventures of Ralphie and Schwartz and Flick and the whole gang of kids growing up in mid-century Indiana, Shepherd grabs hold of the universals of childhood and adolescence and confronts adult readers with the dispiriting truth about adult life: We never got over any of that stuff from our early years. It's easy to read Shepherd's tales as pre-sweetened fantasies of small-town life, but if you read him with the aural equivalent of an arched eyebrow and just a trace of a smirk, if you close your eyes every few pages and imagine him chuckling along with you, "In God We Trust" will sound like radio at its best -- stories that, like the best pop songs, become the soundtracks for the emotional events of our lives.

-- Marc Fisher, radio columnist

Jean Shepherd is the voice of "A Christmas Story."