It's Funny How Serious a Humorist Can Be

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

Roy Blount, Jr. has written a truckload of books. He’s done a truckload of things such as learn to drive a race car and raft down the Amazon River. He’s written about the truckload of things he’s done.  He’s generally referred to as a humorist, but I see him as more of a philosopher on the state of the human existence. Maybe they’re the same thing.

On May 12 he’s coming to Oak Park’s Unity Temple as part of the Writers at Wright Series. Blount loves to tell stories and anecdotes, so I imagine he’ll be as entertaining as the previous two authors have been. What sets him apart, though, is the underlying irritation that pervades his work.  He is funny, but he never lets you forget that the human race is a rascally one. 

His newest book, Alphabetter Juice, won’t be released until just before his appearance, so I was not able to review it before interviewing him on the phone this week. Alphabet Juice, the prequel, was published in 2008.  He said they both follow the same format—they use the alphabet to talk about words, origins of words and random anecdotes that the words conjure up. He said he was considering a third book called Alphabest Juice but he hadn’t started it yet.

I found Alphabet Juice entertaining and informative. But then, I find words intriguing.  I have about seven different dictionaries and will look up the same word to compare the definitions and word origins info.  I know—I should get a life.  But it’s fascinating to trace the real history of how we perceive and express our thoughts as mirrored in the changing meanings of words and phrases.  I’m no scholar, but I love to peruse books like the Juice books. Apparently, Blount has the same passion, but more knowledge being on a usage panel for the Oxford American Dictionary.

Blount said that he enjoys words and likes to use them as an excuse to talk about writers. The format of the book is one he likes too—short pieces unified by the march through the alphabet. He believes that mirrors the way he personally likes to write.

He said that words have always been a hobby of his and he sees them as lively, even physical things. In Alphabet Juice, while he’s expounding on reading the Greek way (out loud) and being engaged with the language, he says, “That’s what I’ve been talking about! Holistic reading. You can move your lips. You can move your hips. Okay, your inner lips and hips.  If you read only visually and cerebrally, it’s like eating just for the vitamins.” This is clearly not a guy who takes reading casually.

When I talked to him he said his writing career started because he wanted to be a “three-sport immortal.”  His athletic talent, while respectable, was not prodigious.  He had a tenth grade teacher who encouraged him to write for the student newspaper and he wrote articles about the popular students for it.

He remained interested in sports but channeled that enthusiasm into writing for Sports Illustrated for several years.  He interviewed many major athletes, including Reggie Jackson, Wilt Chamberlain, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra. He wrote entire book about the Pittsburgh Steelers. That book, About Three Bricks Shy . . .And the Load Filled Up, is considered a classic and I am not just saying that because Pittsburgh is my home town.   

He branched out into writing for many major publications among them, the New Yorker, Atlanta Magazine, National Geographic and Men’s Journal.  Oh and he wrote plays, appeared on TV and in movies and in his spare time, wrote a novel and a biography. He’s a regular panelist on Wait, Wait. . . Don’t Tell Me, the quiz program on NPR, which is hosted by Oak Parker, Peter Segal.

I asked him about his biography of Robert E. Lee.  He was originally asked to write about Mark Twain.  He said he had already written some things about Twain and didn’t feel that he had anything more to say about him, so suggested that he do Lee instead.  Lee seems to me to be a dour, stalwart Victorian. It turns out that he also had a silly side and wrote flirty letters to young women (although Blount was quick to point out that there was no evidence that he ignored his marriage vows).  Blount said that he hadn’t known this about Lee prior to writing about him, but he was glad that that side of him existed, since for the most part he was a gloomy guy who felt that fate had dealt him a bum hand.

This current book tour will take him to about twenty cities and will keep him on the road for about three weeks. He’ll be in Traverse City, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans.  I asked him which cities were most receptive and he said that it depended upon the book store and the promoter but he’d found Oxford Mississippi, Raleigh, North Carolina and San Francisco to be generally good towns for appearances. He also said that he liked coming to Chicago.  Well, he would have to say that, wouldn’t he?

He says his work has been influenced by S.J. Perlman, Peter Benchley and E.B. White.  He also likes Mark Twain. But he mentions, in Be Sweet, that humorists are typically not sweet guys—their humor comes from pain.  In that memoir he talks about the “family curse” and spends many, many pages being angry and perplexed by his mother. He also wonders what it is that compels him to be funny. I hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone but he doesn’t nail that one down in the book.

I asked him about e-book sales.  He said that he has a Kindle and an iPad but he doesn’t like to read books electronically.  He likes to turn the pages, but he writes electronically.  He says he drags a laptop around and uses a desk top.  He also writes prodigiously and uses words like eldritch and etiolated, both of which I had to look up.

I asked him why he hadn’t written more poetry given that he is a word-guy versus a character or plot guy. He said that he had—a two book volume of light verse. Still, while they are funny and obviously require some cleverness to compose, they are not weighty. But as one of his book titles observes: Camels are Easy, Comedy’s Hard.

Blount’s books are available at the local libraries and The Book Table. Tickets to the appearance are $10 and can be purchased in advance at The Book Table. Don’t Wait, Wait. . .  to get them though. They are likely to sell out.

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Christina Pippin from  

Posted: April 25th, 2011 2:48 PM

A humorous take on a very interesting humorist. Thanks, Helen.

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