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Barefoot Boy with Cheek
by Max Shulman

Field-Tested by Mark Bazer

at college in Evanston, Illinois

The point of literature, or reading it, is probably not just to be introduced to characters in environments just like your own, having the experiences and thoughts you could easily be having (if you weren’t busy reading). But I’m guilty of being a sucker for books from the past that can be related to, so personally, that you start to believe that you might be the reincarnation of someone who could write a lot better than you.

There is excitement, and I suppose, comfort in intimately connecting to a character, or an author, or both, across the generations. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t happen that often for me. And unfortunately, the particular book I’m thinking of here is by an author who, were he alive, would be quite capable of mercilessly parodying my heavy-handed sentences above.

Max Shulman was his name, and, along with creating the TV character Dobie Gillis, he wrote a handful of hysterically funny novels. His most famous, Barefoot Boy with Cheek (first published in 1943), is about a young man navigating a large, midwestern university, which I found when I was a young man navigating a large, midwestern university.

Girls, grades, fraternities — they were all subjects Shulman took up — no different on the surface than most other books or movies about college life. But whereas I could enjoy but never fully relate to Animal House, Shulman’s story, loaded with absurdity, heavy sarcasm, and offering more a wiseass view of the world than a story of a wiseass (or multiple wiseasses) disrupting the world, felt more right to me.

A typical Shulman passage:

We kissed. A wondrous thing happened. In Minnesota, in October, I heard the song of a nightengale. ‘Did you hear it, Yetta?’ I whispered. ‘The nightengale? Yeah. There’s lots of them over in the medical building. They cut them open and pull out their pancreas. It contains a fluid that’s supposed to be good for the bends.’

Reading for pleasure is typically frowned upon at college, but there was (and still is) a special used bookstore near the Northwestern campus called Bookman’s Alley. The humor section (Benchley, Baker, Thurber, Trillin), in particular, was where I sought inspiration for the type of writing I wanted to do. Finding Shulman’s Barefoot Boy there — and instantly connecting to it enough that I was willing to shell out $20 for it — was one of those moments you can have in a bookstore that you never forget.

I then devoured the novel, in various spots on campus, when I should have been reading other things that had been assigned to hundreds of other students. (Nothing against Ben Franklin’s autobiography, but did it have to be mandatory reading in every class in or near the history department?)

Barefoot Boy was, and still is, out of print, and as much as I’ve tried to share it with friends over the years — and as much as the experiences described in it remain so common — there was something nice about having my own private reading list.

Mark Bazer is a syndicated humor columnist and the host of the live Chicago-based talk show The Interview Show. Columns and information about the show are available at his website.

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