Monday, November 05, 2007

A conversation with Roy Blount Jr.

The esteemed Southern humorist explains how Texas is (and isn't) part of the South and how Austin is (and isn't) part of Texas.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

'Humor,' writes George Saunders in his new essay collection 'The Braindead Megaphone,' 'is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to.' Nowhere is that definition more apt than in the work of Roy Blount Jr., who, like Saunders, will be appearing at this weekend's Texas Book Festival.

Blount has become, over the course of his 40-year career, a kind of national mascot for the clich├ęd curmudgeonly Southern writer. It's a self-conscious role he's been willing to play, much in the same way Garrison Keillor plays a Northern country rube on "A Prairie Home Companion," only to undermine the stereotype. Here's a guy who doesn't like NASCAR; tosses off knowing references to Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl (often on the same page); and has lived in New England for most of his adult life — though he's retained his Georgia accent.

"One difference between Garrison's franchise and mine," says Blount, "is that nobody on a national, much less international, level knew about bachelor Norwegian farmers and Midwestern Lutherans and lutefisk until he came along. Everybody already thought they knew about Southern stuff when I came along. Also, he can sing. I wish to hell I could sing."

Ironically, Blount wasn't born in the South, but in Indianapolis in 1941, though he was raised in the Atlanta suburb Decatur and attended Vanderbilt University (a proud Southern institution if there ever was one). He then moved to New York City in the late '60s and has since divided his time between there and the Yankee stronghold of Western Massachusetts. His expatriate existence, he writes in his collection of essays, "Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South," entails explaining to people that "y'all" is always second person plural (not singular) and "trying to get Aunt Dixie and Uncle Sam on speaking terms."

Blount was scheduled to be one of the headliners at the Book Festival's opening night gala Friday, participate in Saturday's Molly Ivins tribute and today will read from "Long Time Leaving" and co-host the festival's debut "Define-A-Thon," which promises to "separate the vocabulary geniuses from the vocabulary wannabes." (Blount's co-host Steve Kleinedler, a lexicographer with the American Heritage Dictionary, is said to have a phonetic vowel chart tattooed on his shoulder — which sounds like the punch line of a Blount joke.)

"I always loved coming to Austin for music and high times in the '70s, and now I enjoy coming to it for the food and the countryside and to see my sister, Susan," says Blount. "As I am not the only person to have observed, Austin is not like the rest of Texas. Of course, you could probably say the same about Abilene or Amarillo, but I like the ways in which Austin is unlike the rest of Texas, and I even like the ways in which it is, in my eyes at least, thoroughly Texan."

It's tempting to suggest that Blount is a modern-day Mark Twain, but the comparison doesn't rate. First, Blount seems less inclined toward get-rich-quick schemes and taking on debt. Second, of Blount's 20 books, only one (1990's "First Hubby") is a novel and one of his best is about ... football. "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load: A Highly Irregular Lowdown on the Year the Pittsburgh Steelers Were Super but Missed the Bowl," was written in 1974 and remains among the finest books about the sport ever written. Twain wrote about frog races.

Blount is best known — aside from his regular gig on the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" — as the editor of "Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor," which made him the de facto expert on the topic of joke telling south of the Mason-Dixon line. That book includes a contribution from Edgar Allen Poe, so we know he considers Maryland to be part of the South. How about Texas?

"Texas is Texas," he said, "When I edited an anthology of Southern humor, I included several Texans — Molly Ivins, Dan Jenk ins — because I wanted to. But there are differences, of course. When I was growing up in Georgia, we were cowboys until we were maybe 11, but after that we moved on."

Blount, an "avowed non-Republican" — because "Democrats are bad enough" — has, like many other great humorists, found that politics provides some of his best material. In "The Story So Far," the tour-de-force essay that closes "Long Time Leaving," he offers a faux-epic lineage of modern American presidents as seen from the perspective of a Southern liberal.

It starts with John F. Kennedy, "A Hero of the North," who was "martyred in Texas" only to be followed by "The Texan" (Johnson), then the "Dark-Jowled Embodiment of Evil" (Nixon, who was brought down by the "Hero Storytellers, Sir Woodward and Sir Bernstein"). The Georgian (Carter) begets the Aged Genial One (Reagan) who is followed by the Sidekick (George H.W. Bush) and his Glorious War Story in the Televised Sky (Gulf War I). He is succeeded by the Arkansan (Clinton) and finally by the Knothead (George W.) and his war to Vanquish the Evil Ones.

The "Knothead" coinage is vintage Blount: It evokes Bush's convoluted thought processes (if his speech patterns are any indication) and his heels-in-the-ground stubbornness ("knot" being a homophone for "not!").

In a mere two syllables, Blount manages to deploy the verbal and the aural aspects of language to capture two essential characteristics of his subject. It's an efficient bit of word play — the very essence of the nimble sort of truth-telling that George Saunders values so highly.

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