Publishing Info: Red Hen Press, 2009
Number of Pages: 190
Book Category: Memoir
Marv Gold grew up with Shel Silverstein in Chicago and stayed in touch with him throughout his life. They meet in 1935 when Shel is 5 and Marv is 6. They instantly adopt a “big brother-little brother” type relationship—with Marv taking the lead and Shel following along. This pattern starts in grade school and continues through college—with Shel following Marv from school to school.
Eventually, Shel flunks out of one of his four colleges and is drafted into the Army, where he is finally able to pursue his passion for cartooning by drawing for Stars and Stripes. In the mid-1950s, his post-army career is jump-started by a lucky encounter with a young upstart magazine publisher named Hugh Hefner, who signs Shel as one of the first cartoonists for his new magazine Playboy. The relationship between Silverstein and Hefner—which led Shel to live in the Playboy Mansion for several years (when it was in Chicago)—was often contentious but lasted an astounding 40 years.
After cartooning, his next career phase was as children’s book author, where he wrote such well-known and loved books as The Light In the Attic, Where The Sidewalk Ends, The Missing Piece, and The Giving Tree. His unique point of view, simple line drawings and ability to create poems that spoke to children made him a giant in the children’s book field, which led to numerous awards and acclaim. During this phase of his career, he also recorded children’s albums, featuring readings of his poems and songs. This led to the next phase of his career—songwriting.
This was one aspect of Shel Silverstein’s career that was a surprise to me. Did you know he wrote the song “A Boy Named Sue” (made famous by Johnny Cash)? Or was responsible for many of Dr. Hook’s songs, including “Sylvia’s Mother” and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”? Or wrote “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”? Or that he was nominated for an Oscar for his song “I’m Checkin’ Out” for the movie Postcards from the Edge? Many of his songs seem to have a comedy or novelty aspect to them, but I’m sure you’ve heard of at least one of them—and I bet you didn’t know Shel Silverstein had anything to do with them.
His career came to an end when he was found dead in his home in Key West, where he had lived a reclusive lifestyle for several years. The cause of death was heart failure. He was 67.
The book opens with Marv Gold receiving word of his friend’s death and his reaction to it, which involves hearing Shel’s voice singing to him. He seeks help from a therapist to come to terms with the loss of his friend (though I’m unclear whether this was a literary device for framing the book or if Marv Gold actually did see a therapist) and along the way he remembers the type of person Shel was and how his multi-faceted career developed. At the end of the book, he is able to make peace with his loss and the singing voice stops.
This was one of several areas of this book where I was unsure whether Mr. Gold was trying to be clever or was recounting actual events. The sections where he talks to his therapist are a bit gimmicky and somewhat off-putting. In addition, I found some of the early parts of the book difficult to read because they were written in a choppy almost fragmentary way and often interspersed with song lyrics. An example:
Then it happened—
Sure as hell that same rasping voice was back.
Jeepers, Creepers, Where’d you get them peepers,
Jeepers, Creepers, Where’d you get those—
I sat up and finished the line—”Eyes! Not bad, Mr. Shel. Not great, but not bad. However, as Jolson used to say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Then I belted back my own favorite—
I’m sitting on top, top of the world
Just a-rolling along, just a-rolling along
I’m quitting the blues of the world,
Just a-singing a song, a-singing a song!
A chill wind blew over the shoreline, and I grinned.
He was gone. Silence at last. Where did it all go?
Where did it all begin? Were we in first grade? No, I went to Funston on Central Park, and Shel went to Darwin on Belden. Was it in the old neighborhood? Yes. On California Avenue? Not quite. Logan Square? Yes. How old was I? Maybe six. So Shel must have been five.
But where did it really begin? With our backgrounds? Maybe. We were both Jewish. We both had immigrant Hungarian parents. Lower middle class upbringing. We both had simple, colorless childhoods. We liked to read, draw and write and that was about it.
As the book progressed though, the writing becomes a little more focused and straightforward. And I remember thinking toward the end of the book: “The writing is downright lucid now.” In a way, the early parts of the book are like listening to one of your older relatives tell a story—filled with starts and stops, tangents, non-sequiters, details you don’t understand, slang that is unfamiliar. Eventually, you start to get into the rhythm of your relative’s speech patterns, but it is a bit of work. For these reasons, this book might work better as an audio book rather than as a printed book.
The book is filled with drawings by the author (who also studied cartooning) that serve to illustrate the story. In addition, the book contains a Shel Silverstein FAQ (written by the author) that is fairly straightforward and a bibliography of Shel’s personal details, career, artistic works and awards.
My Final Recommendation
Why and Where I Got The Book I want to thank Paula Krapf of Author Marketing Experts for providing me with a review copy of this book.