March 26: “Boys Town” by Jim Shepard

People who grew up in Chicago in the sixties, seventies, and eighties might remember a weekly Sunday afternoon program on WGN called Family Classics. Family Classics was hosted by a portly, pleasant-sounding man named Frazier Thomas, who also worked as a newscaster on WGN and as one of the non-clown straight men on The Bozo Show, an institution in Chicago for quite some time (and inspiration for nationwide Bozo shows, as well as Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons). Every Sunday at one, Thomas would be sitting in a big, warm set, complete with comfy chair, bookcases full of leatherbound volumes, and a roaring fire, and would present movies to the Chicago audiences who had nothing better to do after church. Since I never had anything better to do than watch TV when I was a kid, I usually watched the family classic, often sci-fi B-flicks like The End of the World, The Amazing Colossal Man, a bunch of Lassie films, and my favorite, The Mark of Zorro. They were all from the forties or fifties, were family-friendly, and from when I was four until I was eleven, I was a fan. For seven straight years, I watched the same movies, once a year (remember, this was when you either saw old movies on TV or you didn’t see them, as there was no cable or VCRs yet), and even looked forward to certain films like Zorro or War of the Worlds, watching the TV guide to make sure I didn’t miss them.

Another yearly staple was Boys Town, the Spencer Tracy-Mickey Rooney movie about Father Flanagan, this priest who starts an orphanage for wayward boys in Omaha, Nebraska. Flanagan’s catchphrase is “There’s no such thing as a bad boy,” and Mickey Rooney is a runaway tough who spends most of the movie trying to prove him wrong. Eventually, Rooney is touched by Father Flanagan (…) after this little urchin tagalong named Pee Wee is hit by a car. Rooney eventually is reformed and becomes the mayor of Boys Town, which is a thing, and then they made a sequel, The Men of Boys Town, which was always on the next week, which I watched as well. My family was so into Family Classics and Boys Town that when we drove to Colorado when I was five, we stopped and visited the real Boys Town in Omaha, which is still operational, if I’m not mistaken. Of course, my family joked that they were going to leave me there, which made me cry, terrified. Now that I think about it, Boys Town is kind of traumatic for me.

When I saw there was a story named “Boys Town” in Jim Shepard’s book You Think That’s Bad, I immediately thought of the movie, but also wondered if maybe it was about the neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, famous for its large gay male population, a neighborhood my family and I have lived in during a couple of summers (Boys Town has great restaurants and is really close to Wrigley Field). I thought it was a coin flip, because a writer could write a good story referencing either. Soon, though, I discovered that Shepard was writing about the Nebraska movie version, as otherwise, the first two paragraphs of this post would be very, very different.

The character at the center of “Boys Town,” the Shepard story, is a bad boy. That’s the underlying theme here, that even though he and his mom and best friend watch a VHS tape of the movie a lot and know the catchphrase, he’s just a bad boy, plain and simple. That translates to, fictionwise, an unreliable narrator. The story’s told in first person, which gives Shepard a chance to let this guy just talk, characterize himself by his off-kilter world view and questionable choices. For example, to help contribute to his household—he’s thirty-nine, lives with his mom, and hasn’t had a job for years—he goes out and shoots a turkey and brings it home for her to dress and cook. The mother has no experience in or intention of doing such a thing, so, pissed off, the narrator throws the whole thing in a Dumpster. Later, he realizes somebody could use a turkey and drops it off at “some charity or church” so they can cook it and eat it. That’s a pretty typical line of reasoning for him, and that’s just an example. It’s not good for this guy or the people he knows, but great for readers: He’s hilarious, tragically so.

Bad decision is piled on top of bad decision, and eventually, the narrator comes home one day to find out the cops came by, looking for him. He admits that there’s a list of things the cops could be coming to arrest him for and decides to go on the lam. Somewhere deep in the woods, he has a bugout bag buried, full of survival gear (he goes to a lot of gun/survivalist shows), and he supplements that with a tent and some other gear. Then he sits in his tent for a day. When nobody comes for him—he’s either eluded the cops or they were never coming to arrest him—he gets bored and wanders back into town.

First thing, the narrator heads to the house of a woman he’s “pursuing,” really just a woman he’s talked to at the library a couple of times (yes, he hangs out at the library all day and talks to strangers, so another clue), whom he’s left notes for, but has never really conversed with, let alone dated. The woman’s husband opens the door, shoos him away. The narrator circles around the block to the woman’s back yard and fires a few rounds from his rifle into a window. That does it—when he returns to the woods, to his tent, he’s suddenly surrounded by sirens, then approaching men, and the story ends with him clutching his rifle, wondering what he’ll do next.

I really love “Boys Town” for the conviction that Shepard gives his anti-hero, how sure this guy  is that he’s never, at any point, done anything wrong, a trait his hen-pecking mother points out early on; it’s never his fault. He just doesn’t get it, and after thirty-nine years of missing work then wondering why he’s fired, of pushing his girlfriend down the stairs and wondering why she kicks him out, and doing all the things he did to make the cops come looking for him and being surprised, he still fires those shots, randomly, into the window of a woman he’s barely spoken with, thinking she’s cheated on him, with the husband she’s always had. He’s such a great character because of his dedication to his delusions, and Shepard, like in all of his stories, has a pretty good time with him, setting him loose upon the world, and his pages.

Jim Shepard