Trying to Be Cool

Growing Up in the 1950s (Based on a True Story)

By Leo Braudy.

Asahina & Wallace.

269 pp. $13.46 paperback

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Reviewed by Michael D. Schaffer

Pardon Leo Braudy while he digresses, which he does often in Trying to Be Cool.

Actually, it isn't too hard to forgive Braudy for the narrative detours in his amusingly embroidered recollections of a 1950s Philadelphia adolescence.

The Jewish teen who hung out at Barson's Soda Shop at 60th and Cedar - "the scene for the lower middle-class and middle-class Jewish kids in West Philadelphia" - grew up to be an accomplished critic and cultural historian. His asides are entertaining and thoughtful excursions across a cultural landscape that includes dancing, rock-and-roll, father figures, society's worries about teenage rebelliousness, and the nature of cool.

This is how Braudy's impressive talent for digressive storytelling works:

Into the middle of a story about how a clumsy, alcohol-addled teenage friend ("a prime drunk of the period, specializing in beer and very sloppy about it") stepped on and smashed the beloved guitar of another teenage friend's mother, Braudy inserts 71/2 pages on the Philly folk music scene in the '50s, with observations on coolness, the Beats, the blues, and rock-and-roll.

Having led us across the cultural landscape, Braudy puts us back on the narrative pathway at just the moment when the kid's "right foot came down with a slamming crash," turning the doomed guitar into "splintered bits of polished wood and inlaid fragments of ivory . . . . "

Neatly done.

Braudy was a '50s teen through and through. "In 1950, I was 9 years old, and in 1960, I was 19," he writes. "The decade virtually corresponded to my own teenage years."

He'd had polio when he was 4, leaving him with one leg slightly shorter than the other, but his teenage years were unremarkable, an uncertain pursuit of girls and cool.

Not that all was sunny and carefree. There was tension with his father, a man whose temper was "so volatile that the slightest thing could touch it off, and I never knew what the trigger was. We would be sitting at the breakfast table and, wham, all of a sudden, I'd get a hard slap on the shoulder or a pinch on the ear."

Braudy mentions his Jewish identity frequently, but his Jewishness was more passive than active. Most of the teenage Braudy's contact with organized Judaism seems to have been attending dances at synagogues, including a wealthy congregation he cheekily dubs "Har Shekel" and locates in Wynnefield, "which in the early '50s was a neighborhood for Jewish families who wanted to demonstrate their physical as well as cultural and financial distance from the older generation." He was more comfortable with

intellectually avid Jews, caught in a generational limbo between the shtetl behind them and the academy ahead . . . their religion was the mind, its daily services were conversation, and its liturgy was opinions about everything.

Although Braudy based the book on his own teenage years, Trying to Be Cool is more cultural history than memoir. "To call this a memoir makes me uncomfortable," he writes in an afterword that might have been better placed at the beginning of the book.

Braudy figures - and it's hard to argue with him on this - that nobody can remember the details of events that happened more than half a century ago. "So this is not a memoir in any strict sense," he explains. "But I have tried to stick firmly to its emotional certainty, if not its factual truth." The events in the book, Braudy writes, "deal with a person resembling me, trying to grow up and understand the world."

Because he isn't writing a factual account, Braudy feels free to combine individuals into single characters. He takes other liberties, too. Sometimes, he reverses the order of events or has people "say things they might not have said in just that way."

So, we have a book that's not quite fact and not quite fiction, sort of like a movie treatment of Braudy's teen years, appropriate since Braudy, a professor of English and American literature at the University of Southern California and expert on pop culture, has written several books on movies.

Braudy can get away with fudging the facts, he writes, because he isn't a public figure and, as he points out, " . . . none of the events recounted . . . happened in the public eye." If he were running for president, say, readers would be entitled to more than "emotional certainty."

Here, though, emotional certainty is just fine, entertaining and instructive at the same time.

Michael D. Schaffer is The Inquirer's books editor.