Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America, by Bill Geist (2019)

Geist, a humorist and travel writer widely known for his CBS Sunday Morning features, worked at Arrowhead Lodge back in the 1950s and early 1960s, as a waiter, janitor, dish washer, septic tank supervisor, and bellhop. Arrowhead was owned by Geist’s aunt and uncle and might be thought of as a little bit upscale.

The lodge was built in 1935 just a few years after Bagnell Dam was completed. It lasted in some form through 2006.

Geist portrays a number of  “outlandish” characters, none of whom seem terribly outlandish. His Uncle Ed, the proprietor of Arrowhead, always drove a new Cadillac and drank too much; he was loud and rather a bully. But his flamboyance seems to have been for the benefit of the tourists, who could go away describing him as an unforgettable character. At base, Ed seems to have been a shrewd businessman who ran a profitable enterprise.

Geist has a good time commenting on Lake of the Ozarks kitsch: hillbilly golf, hillbilly souvenirs such as corncob pipes, and roadside attractions such as Tom’s Monkey Jungle and Max Allen’s Reptile Gardens. Nothing intrinsically Ozarkian here; you could have found similar establishments in Florida or the Wisconsin Dells. More interestingly, Geist  writes about the Ozarks Opry and the appearances of such luminaries as Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs, both of whom sometimes frequented the lodge. Geist just drops names, however. He doesn’t offer anecdotes.

He’s brutally accurate when he points out that these cheap amusements appealed to the cheap seats: working class people for whom Lake of the Ozarks was almost exotic. On limited budgets, tourists could swim, fish, take a boat ride; they could play carnival games; they could feast until they fell sick; they could smoke cigars and drink themselves under the table at Arrowhead’s “Pow Wow Lounge.” Working as a waiter, Geist knew these cheapskates well. They didn’t tip.

Geist alludes to a lot of sexual hijinks, and these passages are the book’s most energetic. He fondly recalls a skinny-dipping party with lodge employees, recapturing the feelings of a teenaged boy who had yet to experience sex. These are summer camp stories and nothing more, but they’ll jog memories for some readers.

Lake of the Ozarks isn’t about the Ozarks, really. The one exception is a lovely chapter describing an old woman’s (Grandma’s) last day in the place where she’s always lived, Linn Creek. She must leave, her house will be leveled, because of Bagnell’s rising waters.

Geist allows that he’s “an aficionado of the tacky and outrageous.” His book is often fun when it brings kitsch to life, just like cruising a flea market can be fun. It’s all quite superficial and Geist is on safe, middlebrow, CBS Sunday Morning ground. It’s when he tries to make a larger point that he comes across as phony:

I don’t recall any whispers or snide remarks about Mike’s [homosexual] proclivities. Funny about these Ozark folk, these presumed rednecks. You never heard racial slurs or nasty remarks about sexual preferences  . . . Not the way you would in far more cosmopolitan St. Louis or Chicago. Now you would hear Baptists badmouthing Methodists.

The passage maintains the stereotype that “these Ozark folk” are somehow different from the rest of humanity. That somehow, in their rustic simplicity, they are more decent and forgiving than city slickers. But if you were white, growing up in most any Missouri small town with a sundown law, you certainly heard racial slurs. And there was verbal abuse—if you were heterosexual—of homosexuals; that’s one of the reasons why gay “folk” tended to leave for the big city. Finally, you wouldn’t hear Baptists badmouthing Methodists. It never mattered that much; Geist is just repeating a mindless refrain that sounds kind of reasonable. This is lazy, thoughtless writing.

Kitsch ain’t what it used to be, and it’s all made in China and sold in warehouses along I-44. The Lake of the Ozarks is still there, of course, though arguably the crown for kitsch—and certainly, the surreal—has moved on to Branson.  Geist’s book is agreeable in some ways but it’s not worth $26. Check it out from your library or buy it used.