Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Growing Pains

By Leonard Gill

JUNE 22, 1998: 

Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story, By Roy Blount Jr.; Knopf, 288 pp., $24

Mark Twain observed his father’s autopsy through a keyhole. Richard Pryor caught his mother turning a trick. And Robert Benchley overheard his mother genuinely wishing that he and not his brother had been the one who died. Humorists all. Made, not born.

Roy Blount Jr. at birth nearly killed his mother, an instance of a funnyman born, not made. The irony, the poker face, the despair, the self-loathing came later, after the double-whammy of being not only a matricide but a junior.

“I tell stories,” Blount says at the opening of his memoir Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story – the word “storyteller” has too many awful associations; “unconditional love” he rightly reserves for dogs and grandchildren; “sweet” we’ll save for later – “and mine, for reasons that we may or may not get to the bottom of, are generally humorous. Which means I have left things out. But now I am fifty-five: roughly the age when humorists stop being funny. It could happen any minute, maybe in the middle of a sentence. So this time I’m putting everything in.”

Putting everything in by hauling everything out (an autoautopsy?): from feet on up to “you-know,” and on to head and heart. What it took for him to do this, though, is guts.

He grew up in Decatur, Georgia, too young to serve in World War II, too old to be a Baby Boomer, inside a family longer on “emotionally hairy” Methodism than it was on side-splitters, knee-slappers. His reserved but dutiful father had his dream of becoming an architect crushed by the Depression, but after a series of jobs worked his way up to banker and respected civic leader. Blount’s mother, Louise, equal parts exasperation and resignation, worked the house. And in her house “pee” was “tinkle,” the F-word was “fib,” and “You have ripped out my heart and jumped up and down on it on the kitchen floor” was her way of getting the last word. Her quieter goal was to “raise up you children and ... die.”

Blount could not, of course, wait to get out and, in reaction to his father’s reticence, inspired by his mother’s outspokenness, did – by taking to words and writing them down, for at last count 117 different publications. As for books, Be Sweet is his lucky 13th. But in writing, as in the case of Little League, two failed marriages, and raising his own kids, he has had to learn things by experience, a nicer way of saying “by plunging in and doing them less and less clearly wrong.” Clearly wrong has been his holding to being “nice.”

“Every single person I can think of who has gone farther in life than I have is pronouncedly less nice than I am,” Blount plainly states, and then pairs in support of this foregone conclusion the household names Martha Stewart and Gennadi A. Zyuganov. The issue was put to final rest by one woman friend. Asked by the author what the word “nice” meant to her, she answered: “If we say someone is a nice man, it means we’re not interested in him.”

Well, then, what about “sweet”? If “Be a good man” was his father’s one piece of advice, “Be sweet” was his mother’s mantra. How a man goes about being sweet is anyone’s guess, including Blount’s. But is it guesswork by this book, which detours wildly, constantly, literally in mid-sentence on occasion but with humor intact from an author, age 55? If “narrative drive” is “what male writers are supposed to have,” “Be sweet” may be shorthand from mom for “get lost” – in language, in life, stop, do what you will, you’ll forget me.

“All my life I have been in a struggle – a tangle – with female consciousness,” says the author, not the least of which has been Louise Blount’s. And in an attempt at untangling, Blount ties her suffering, and more subtly his own, to “the family curse.” This sort-of-autobiography has as its returning aim to get to the bottom of it, or as near to the bottom as records, hearsay, and conjecture will allow. No need to go into full detail here, except to say that Roy Blount Jr., miraculously for this day and age, refrains from the cheap and easy shot. When he does take a shot, it’s hard-won, late-coming (page 249), and to the point: “I hated my mom.”

That’s “hated,” not “hate.”

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