Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America. By Bill Geist. (Grand Central Publishing, 2019, Pp. 208).
Reviewed by Thomas A. Peters
This is a very funny book, but also unsettling in several ways. As I read, I wondered if the world needs yet another memoir about the aching youth of a semi-privileged white male in America in the mid-twentieth century.
Regardless of how you answer that question in the abstract, this is a fun little book and a good read. In an off-hand way, Geist is very unapologetic about the appeal of those summers he spent working at his aunt and uncle’s resort on the Lake of the Ozarks, where heterosexual love, alcohol, and the quirkiness of white folk — mainly males — were the primary attractions for young Bill. Reading this book today is like watching an old Don Rickles comedy routine on YouTube. His comedic material is still funny, but now it has an even sharper edge that cuts against inclusivity and makes my laughter much more nervous.
Geist’s memoir of the eight summers as a teenager he spent working at the Arrowhead Lodge, now gone, near Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri had a similar effect on me. Part of me always has loved to experience the eccentric characters of a particular place and time, whether it’s Rusty Garst in 1960s Fort Dodge, Iowa, Brother John and Quasar in 1980s Iowa City, or Geist’s Uncle Ed in this book. Zany, wry situation comedy always has a pull.
Geist is a little vague about dates, and the eight summers he spent from roughly 1960 through 1967 working at the Lodge are undifferentiated in a decade of social, cultural, and political upheaval, the whole scene seems timeless and not in danger of vanishing anytime soon.
The words “surreal” and “vanishing” in the book’s subtitle strike a bit of an ominous tone. The book is not all sun-drenched days and summer love. Although he doesn’t dwell on it much, Geist is dealing with his own mortality in his own way. He’s had Parkinson’s for 26 years. What he fondly remembers about those eight summers is that those people and that mildewed milieu brought forth his true self and a basic attitude toward life and work and love that has stood him in good stead throughout his life.
Geist is not a native Ozarker. Evidently none of his people are. He’s a furriner, and he’s a journalist as well as a television journalist. He grew up in Champaign, Illinois. Not many trees and very few hills in Champaign County, I can vouchsafe. For a tall, lanky redheaded kid from Urbana, Bill feels that Aunt Janet and Uncle Ed are alive and urbane. They were not hillbillies who rarely ventured forth from the county of their birth. Uncle Ed had been slow to return from Europe after World War II because he was having such a good time with the wine, the women, and the song. Aunt Janet somehow had managed to almost be killed in a traffic accident involving a taxi in Istanbul, and she proudly proclaimed to never having cooked a meal.
These were real people with real names in a real place at a real time. Lee Mace, who gets a mention in this memoir, was a real person. I’m surprised that Buford Foster, an eccentric from that time and place, doesn’t get mentioned. Foster was the owner of the Night Hawk Cafe in Camdenton, as well as properties right on the lakefront, and the organizer of several square-dancing troupes that appeared on the Ozarks Jubilee ABC television program that was broadcast live from the Jewell Theater in Springfield, Missouri.
Whenever the Lake of the Ozarks is mentioned in print, often the author notes — Geist does it twice! — that the reservoir created in the early Thirties by the construction of Bagnell Dam by the power company now known as Ameren, has more shoreline than the entire state of California. As if Laguna Beach, Malibu, Big Sur, and Marin County should apologize, cringe, or watch their backs.
Sometimes books are too close to your own life for comfort. My parents honeymooned at Lake of the Ozarks in September 1948, before the original Arrowhead Lodge burned and long before Geist became a teen. My father took a ride in the helicopter joy ride that Geist mentions in his book. My mother demurred. On January 19, 1950, the original Arrowhead Lodge, with 20 rooms, burned to the ground (St. Louis Star and Times, Thursday, January 19, 1950, p. 5). Mrs. Patricia Link, age 25, the daughter of Ed and Janet Popkess, the owners, was in charge of the hotel while her parents were in St. Louis. Ed and Janet rebuilt the lodge, and the rest is history, and the source of a very good, funny book.
Thomas A. Peters serves as Dean of Library Services at Missouri State University.