New York Times Review

Date: February 28, 1982, Sunday, Late City Final Edition
Section 7; Page 12, Column 3; Book Review Desk
Byline: By MARTIN A. JACKSON; Martin A. Jackson is
editor of Millimeter, a film and video production
magazine published in New York City.
Lead: A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS By Jean Shepherd.
Illustrated. 265 pp. New York: Doubleday & Co. $14.95.

IT was 1957, and I was wide awake at 2 A.M., hopelessly
trapped, listening to Jean Shepherd's night-long radio
show. In the years when Eisenhower was in the White
House, Jean Shepherd was a radical in the best sense of
the word. He switched on light bulbs in the heads of a
whole generation by simply explaining America to us. For
five hours at a time, he beamed his erudition and good
humor out over the East Coast, and we began to
understand this odd nation a bit more. I still think of
him as a matchless radio artist, but he's a fine writer,
too, maybe one of our major humorists. Please note that
a humorist is not a comic: Shepherd doesn't tell jokes;
we aren't talking of Don Rickles here. What Jean
Shepherd does is uncover absurdities and make us look
cleanly at our own times. It's no easy trick.

''A Fistful of Fig Newtons,'' Shepherd's third book,
confirms my view. He writes about cars, the Army, summer
camps, the sixth grade, his mother's meat loaf and
beer-burping college kids in the Holland Tunnel - in
short, about our life and times, the ordinary bits and
pieces that every American recognizes and that are
loaded with meaning for us all. He describes ordering,
for example, ''a rich slab of the Mother Food of New
Jersey. Known to the pizza aficionado as a 'Full-tilt
Boogie,' it had everything: anchovies, sausage, green
peppers, double cheese, onions, and the greasy
thumbprints of Vinnie himself.''

Over the years Jean Shepherd has discovered a way of
transposing his radio persona into print. All of the
pieces in ''A Fistful of Fig Newtons'' have an aural
dimension; they sound like Jean Shepherd, in rhythm,
vocabulary and structure. It isn't necessary, though, to
be a veteran radio listener to appreciate them. The
American inner landscape Shepherd depicts will be
familiar to anyone born after Herbert Hoover's
Administration. His tale of the Great Ice Cream War, for
instance, of how Mr. Leggett finally beat out the
competition, the upstart Happy Cow, by just for one
night giving away ice cream cones, is a story of
endurance, bravery and existential choice, written in
the juicy vernacular that Jean Shepherd has made his
own. So is the epic of Ernie, Shep's G.I. buddy, who
gambled for mighty stakes one hot night on a troop train
and lost. ''Is he out there yet,'' Shepherd wonders, ''a
haggard wraith living on berries and dead frogs?''

It is Shepherd's gift and his burden to be addicted to
America. He's a piece of flypaper upon which the dust
and flotsam of this peculiar civilization have been
gathering for years. The sound of his old man's Pontiac
revving up in the driveway? Shepherd remembers. The look
of a college football hero? Shepherd knows: ''Big Al was
wedge-shaped; pure sinew, gristle, and covered with a
thick, bristly mat of primitive fur. Numerous broken
noses had reduced his nostrils to blow-holes.'' Shepherd
understands the first requirement of the humorist:
affection for his subject. He's part of a tradition that
includes George Ade, Robert Benchley, James Thurber and
even Mark Twain. His wit is a kindly inside needling, a
fond reminiscing about the embarrassing moments and
quirky habits of people we've all grown up with. He's
also kind to New Jersey - surely the mark of a good man.

Jean Shepherd has concentrated on writing for the past
few years. It would be nice, though, to have him back on
radio, too, to hear that rich Indiana voice on a clear
50,000-watt signal once again. I'd like to listen to him
ramble some more about the unforgettable feel of a '39
Chevy on a hot evening. In the meantime, we can read
Jean Shepherd, and that is a delight.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company