H ere’s Roy Blount Jr. on the typical table chatter at a bountiful Southern meal:
“Mm. Mmm. Mm.”
“More rolls, anybody?”
“I think this is all I can hold.”
“You better eat some more of this good chicken.”
“No’m, I got to save room for pie.”
“There’s pie? All this and pie?”
That’s pretty much how most readers will feel upon sitting down to Blount’s latest collection of essays, “Long Time Leaving: Dispatches From Up South,” which is so chock-full of interesting, provocative and downright funny material that it cannot possibly be consumed at one sitting. Or several sittings, to be truthful.
Essay collections are like that – best nibbled at over time, the better to savor the flavor and absorb all the mental nutrition.
Blount, who grew up in Georgia, has degrees from Vanderbilt and Harvard universities and now divides his time between western Massachusetts and Manhattan, so he’s nothing if not bicultural. He can talk red to blue-staters and blue to red-staters. Both would do well to pay attention.
He’s also nothing if not prolific. “Long Time” is his 20th book – the list includes a biography of Robert E. Lee, “Crackers,” “About Three Bricks Shy of a Load” and “Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans” – and he has written for just about every major magazine, not to mention for TV and films, in which he also has acted. He’s a contributing editor for The Atlantic Monthly, president of the Author’s Guild, a usage consultant for American Heritage Dictionary and a panelist on NPR’s quiz show, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”
So you can understand why the man gets a little ticked off when some Northerners condescendingly tag him with the soft bigotry of low expectations, seemingly dumbfounded to find a Southerner who is liberal, literate and likable.
He describes himself as “a pre-baby boom liberal Southern Democrat residing in semirural Massachusetts” and says:
“My roots are Southern, I sound Southern, I love a lot of Southern stuff, and when my (Northern) local paper announces a festival to ‘celebrate the spirit of differently abled dogs’ I react as a Southerner. I believe I care as much about dogs’ feelings as anybody. It is hard for me to imagine that a dog with three legs minds being called a three-legged dog.”
Blount probably would get a little defensive if you told him this collection makes him sound a bit defensive, but he gives ample reason he should feel that way.
But this is no whine fest. It’s far too amusing for that, but it’s the kind of amusing that’s built on a solid foundation of serious inquiry. Blount takes us along as he examines Southern food, Smoky Mountain dialects, Krispy Kreme donuts, American politicians, the derivation of the song “Shortnin’ Bread,” the making of the movie “Nashville,” the genius of Mark Twain, the impenetrability of Wallace Stevens’ poetry and oh-so-many more topics.
He shines as he takes novelist Jane Smiley to task for saying Twain’s masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” was inferior to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Blount not so gently mocks Smiley’s contentions, effectively taking Twain’s side in this Nook Farm Celebrity Death Match. He decides it all harks back to Twain having poked fun at a couple of characters named Smiley in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
He explains the Methodism of his youth, but says he is now a “cumgranosalist” – “taking things literally but with a grain of salt.”
He tells us that irony is what you use to talk behind someone’s back to their face.
The book is full of such tasty morsels. It’ll fill you up for a good long time.
“Mm. Mmm. Mm.”