A Southern-Fried Original
Roy Blount, Jr. expounds upon humor and age and talks about his mama.
By Jack Neely
MAY 3, 1999: Even after years of appearances on Prairie Home Companion, hundreds of articles in Sports Illustrated, the Atlantic, and The New Yorker, and 13 popular books, people still mispronounce his last name.
"It's nice to talk to someone from East Tennessee who knows how to pronounce it," the author says. Everywhere else, most pronounce Blount, logically, as if it rhymes with count or mount. "If you pronounced everything spelled that way like you pronounce Blount," he says, "you'd pronounce pronounce 'pronunce.'"
We know how to pronounce Roy Blount, Jr.'s name because a distant ancestor of his is the guy who decided to found a city called Knoxville. We've named a county and a mansion and a high school and an avenue after William Blount. "He's the first senator to be impeached," boasts Roy Blount. "Did you know that?"
Roy Blount doesn't have a whole lot in common with Governor and erstwhile Senator William Blount, except that they're both Southern-bred originals without much patience for the rulebooks. It's impossible to describe Roy Blount's style, but try this: Think of stream-of-consciousness writing, along the lines of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Now think of James Joyce after half a fruit jar of moonshine, in the press box trying to cover a Braves game. Imagine that, and you'll stumble somewhere in the general direction of Roy Blount Jr. Every thought reminds him of something else, and that new thought often turns out to be so interesting that he never gets back around to the original thought. To follow all his twists and turns, you need a strong stomach and an open mind.
When you think of Roy Blount and his work, it's hard not to lean on Southernisms, like tetched. He drawls on the page, and on the phone.
In his Manhattan apartment he's talking about his latest book, Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story, a sort of non-linear autobiography. He acknowledges the book is quite a departure. "You gotta keep on departin,' or you'll just start retreatin,'" he says. Be Sweet is like no other book Blount has ever written, maybe like no other book anyone has ever written. Though Blount's famously loony humor pervades the bookhe plays pranks on us with nearly every paragraph few of which end in any way we could have predictedthe book is, at its heart, an emotional exposé of his tortured relationship with his mother, the woman who "loved me to pieces...and I'm still trying to pick up the pieces." Along the way, Blount talks baseball and Chinese cuisine and makes some chillingly realistic observations about men and women and why they will never, ever get along.
Not only did he hesitate to publish it, but he says "I still have hesitations about it. If you don't, maybe it's not worth publishing." Both unapologetically liberal and politically incorrect, Be Sweet is almost brazen in its honesty, and definitely not calculated to make friends with either feminists or Republicans. But after all, an emotional, personal, politically risky book from a previously aloof humorist may be just what we should expect from this American master of the non-sequitur.
"I just spilled coffee on my hand," he adds.
He has written that he feels no obligation to be funny in person, that he has a right to be not funny. He could stop being funny any time he wants to. It's just that he doesn't choose to.
Even when he's writing about his mixed feelings toward his deceased parents and his two failed marriages. He is, now and forever, a Jr., even at age 57, years after the death of his father, who was a prominent municipal leader in Decatur, Georgia. His Juniorhood has become something of an obsession, the subject of the longest chapter in his book, in which he outlines his mystical kinship with other juniors, from Harry Connick to Al Gore to Robert Downey to Kurt Vonnegut.
Juniorhood, in a broad sense, is the theme of his entire book: the phenomenon that no matter how old you are and no matter what you do, your parents may still disapprove.
He says he had a good look at Blount Mansion several years ago, and stays in touch with the greater Blount family that holds reunions in Knoxville every once in a while. When he worked for Sports Illustrated, he interviewed Mel Blount, the Pittsburgh Steeler, who's also from Georgia. The athlete said, "I bet your great-granddaddy owned my great-granddaddy." Blount says he was unsettled by the remark. Almost 40 years ago, Blount alienated his family by his activity in the Civil Rights movement, and today that's one of the few things he takes seriously.
His next project is an unlikely one, another departure: a short biography of Robert E. Lee. Blount says he grew up in Georgia so surrounded by the Civil War that he previously had little interest in it. Long ago, he says, "I sort of decided to give it a pass. I figured the Civil War could get along without me." But when he heard of a Penguin series of short biographies, he had a visitation. "For some reason, Robert E. Lee popped into my mind," Blount says. "He reminds me a little bit of my father: noble, distant, a fine man. He's gotten more and more interesting to me."
He left the South, perhaps forever in 1968, when he took a job with Sports Illustrated. But after 31 years in the North, he still has a strong accent and perspective. "Living in the North kind of reinforces that," he says. "Everybody up here thinks I'm Southern. People are always asking questions about the South. I'm always having to explain the South. Ever since we got Krispy Kreme, people are trying to get me to explain it to them. But I still think of it as your basic doughnut. I can eat about one a month."
He does return South, and says his place in rural Massachusetts reminds him of North Georgia.
"I like New York. I like walking amongst lots of people and feel there are a lot of things going on that I can do, but I don't have to do. There's no obligation. My father was president of everything in Decatur, and I think it sent him to an early grave. I figured I'd go somewhere where nobody'll ever elect me to anything."
He thinks the unfriendliness of New York is exaggerated, but he does miss a certain brand of casual conversation in the South. "There's a level of friendliness and humor in the South that's easy for me to tap into. There's a level of kidding around in the South, a lack of defensiveness that I miss." He mentions talking to a cashier at the Nashville airport. Noticing she was sniffling, Blount said, "Are you catching a cold?" "I hope not," she said. "I've already got one."
Blount says he actually likes Decatur today better than he did when he was a kid there. "Decatur has evolved," he says. "More than I have."
But not everything's better. "I think people don't sit around and talk as much as they used to. People are watching TV and staying inside in the air-conditioningstaying out of the heat and staying away from each other.
"The South has gotten watered down in a lot of waysand that's good in some ways. Atlanta doesn't seem to be a place at all. There's not a sense of place. But you can feel stifled by a sense of place. New York's not a place. It's a lot of different places."
He lives in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side. "It's old-fashioned, getting to be regarded as stodgy. But that's okay." He says he has a right to be stodgy. "I'm 55. No, 56. No, how old am I?"
You're about to tell him, because you just read his book, which repeatedly refers to his birth date. But then he remembers: "Gosh, I'm 57. So I don't want things to be too interesting."
In Be Sweet, Blount talks about his old friend and Vanderbilt classmate Lamar Alexander, who Blount says is naturally a level-headed moderate. The two stuck their necks out to campaign against segregation in Nashville in the early '60s. "Having to keep up with the national Republican Party has been hard for Lamar," Blount says. He ran into Alexander in Nashville recently, but the two are no longer as close as they once were. "He's always running for president, and I never am, so our paths don't cross too often."
It's hard for a guy who's an old friend of Lamar Alexander and who sings, if badly, in a rock 'n' roll band with Dave Barry and Stephen King not to drop names here and there. Names spill like his hot coffee all over Be Sweet, from Willie Mayswho was apparently uncomfortable about Blount's coverage of his later, lesser performanceto, of all people, the ivory-tower iconoclast Harold Bloom, with whom Blount found himself placed in an alphabetical line of literary honorees.
Blount and his contemporary Garrison Keillor have been mutual admirers for years (Blount has called Keillor the first humorist from Minnesota); they met after the two began exchanging letters when they were both contributors to The New Yorker. At the time, Blount knew Keillor only by his byline and had never even heard of the public-radio variety show Prairie Home Companion. But Keillor coaxed him on as a semi-regular.
"I've met a lot of my Southern heroes on Prairie Home Companion," Blount says, mentioning Chet Atkins, Roger Miller, Ernest Tubb, the fiddler Johnny Gimble. He also enjoys his sparring with comedian Paula Poundstone, "making fun of each other's mothers."
His last book before Be Sweet was a collection of humor writing from the South. "It was supposed to be the 'Norton Anthology of Southern Humor,'" Blount says, "but it ended up as Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor."
"Southern humorists are unbuttoned, freewheeling," says Blount, who grew up hearing Uncle Remus stories. Blount especially admires a couple of Knoxville-based humorists, the 19th-century storyteller George Washington Harris, creator of the proto-Huck wildboy, Sut Lovingood; he included a Sut story in the anthology. The book even includes a humorous autobiographical piece from Nikki Giovanni, about how her grandparents arrived in Knoxville. But one Knoxville humorist eluded Blount's net. He especially admires the dark humor in Cormac McCarthy's early novels, most of which was based in East Tennessee, and was disappointed that the famously protective McCarthy wouldn't let him reprint an excerpt of Child of God in the anthology. "There's some real hair-raising humor in there," Blount says. "Anybody who can be that rip-roaring and hold it on the page has something."
Would he recommend Be Sweet as a Mother's Day gift? "Why not!" he says. "Nobody's gonna sue me." Then, in a but seriously tone, he adds, "Before you give it to your mother, you should read it first."
It's clearly not for every mom, though it may strike a chord with nearly every son. "Lots of people tell me they had the same mother I had," Blount says.
If you do, too, it might be better to get her some flowers. But get the book for yourself.
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