There’s a false notion that Woody Allen has never achieved widespread popularity among bumpkins like myself. Allen has encouraged the perception: “Some of my films have never played south of the Mason-Dixon line,” he told Roger Ebert just a few years back.
That may be true, but I saw all of them from Annie Hall through Husbands and Wives on the big screen in Mobile, Alabama (a forty-minute trip from my home in Bayou La Batre), and Manhattan Murder Mystery through Scoop in Atlanta.
I’ll admit the pace slacked off once I moved to Mississippi.
“I don’t like him,” said Miss Deanne, one of the women who drove us to school in the carpool when I was in the eighth grade, “but I know he’s a genius.”
She was reacting to my hard-won paperback of Without Feathers, one of Allen’s humor collections. The first time I took it up to the counter, the clerk said it was “too grown-up” for me and refused to sell it. So, of course, I skulked around until another clerk showed up, and bought it from her.
I read it on the playground during lunch period. One day I was sitting there and laughing and somebody asked me what I was reading, so I started reading it out loud. Soon I was reading out loud from Without Feathers at lunchtime every day.
Sometimes I couldn’t get to the punch line right away because I’d be wheezing with laughter in anticipation. There was Allen’s mythical creature, the great roe, “with the head of a lion and the body of a lion, though not the same lion,” and his program notes for an extremely short ballet in which a fawn “drifts lazily through the soft foliage. Soon he starts coughing and drops dead.” Or the man who passes away without achieving his dream: “to sit up to his waist in gravy.” When I finally managed to spit it out, all of us would laugh until snot came out of our noses. It bordered on Salem-witch-trial hysteria.
So there evolved this little Woody Allen cult in Alabama, and I kept it going with trips to the bookstore humor section, which in those days was not just cartoons about sitting on the toilet. I found reprints of Perelman and Benchley, for example, and later, new books by Roy Blount, Jr. It took me a few years to get through the dead humorists who had inspired Woody, though. I was hooked on him in eighth grade and didn’t make it to Roy until college. And I didn’t find Roy Blount, Jr., because he was from the South. I found him because he was funny.
I knew right away he was different. If Roy Blount, Jr., had ever described a man sitting “up to his waist in gravy”—easy to imagine him doing just that—you can bet there would be some identity politics in there. That gravy would be freighted with all the nostalgia and shame of history, more than the verbal equivalent of a sight gag.
Woody Allen had a love-hate relationship with words, a mistrust of their slipperiness, their essential silliness, their broken qualities, their eagerness to be abused, while for Blount it was pure love. He seemed to feel that if you examined any one word closely enough, the whole world would open up.
Take this parenthetical statement from One Fell Soup, which I can pinpoint as the moment when I first got Roy Blount, Jr., and resolved to read everything he had ever written: “(incidentally, orchid is Greek for ‘testicle,’ which may account for the pride with which girls used to wear them on prom dresses, sometimes called ‘ball gowns’).” There, in miniature, was the structure and tone of a Blount essay—elliptical, probing, learned, and shapely. Plus, it had balls in it. Hilarious, hilarious balls.
So that’s what got me first: his way with words. It wasn’t until later that I understood what he was really about.
In the space between high school and college, between Allen and Blount, I read everything I could get my hands on about Woody. In an awful way, Steve Allen’s essay in his book Funny People probably had the most impact. It wound down like this, and I still feel it like a whack in the gut:
I take it as inarguable that Woody’s films mean little to small-town or rural audiences, to born-again conservative Christians, to people over 65, to anti-Semites, and to perhaps a few other pockets of American society.
Steve Allen hates me! I thought. I trusted Steve Allen because he was theoretically funny and supposedly a pioneer and had written ten thousand songs nobody had ever heard of and had a fake dress-up talk show on PBS where, no fooling, you found out what a middlebrow aesthete reckoned Emily Dickinson would say if she had the chance to meet Genghis Khan.
Do I sound bitter? Well, the sting lingers. After all, in eighth grade, I was a rural, small-town, born-again, conservative Christian, and so were all the other kids laughing until they were crying on the playground, and it was shocking to be told that I had no right to enjoy my hero, that he was unavailable to me, by a smarmy gink in thick glasses who represented smartness to us dumb TV-watching hicks everywhere. (And don’t forget the time he made Elvis dress up in a tuxedo and sing to a basset hound on national TV or “hilariously” quoted the lyrics to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” in a solemn poet voice, as if his snide mockery could diminish the power of rock & roll. Oh, Steverino always had it in for us.) Plus, he just had to blithely throw anti-Semitism in there like it was the next natural integer in the subset.
To give him credit, it was years before I allowed myself to read the Without Feathers story “The Whore of Mensa,” because the title sounded too terrifyingly like something from the Book of Revelation. On the other hand, the vaguely blasphemous one-act play called God was my favorite piece in the book, and my paperback was pencil-scrawled with ideas about who among my junior-high classmates would be cast in which role.
I was a Woody expert by then, and I knew that Steve Allen was wrong about other details, too. Allow me to elaborate by means of a digression (Roy Blount, Jr., would do it):
Steve Allen didn’t even understand Woody’s long-professed love of Bob Hope, calling it “an absolutely stupefying assertion.” Every real Woody fan could point out the affinities between Allen’s Love and Death and Hope’s Monsieur Beaucaire, and knew that Woody had compiled and edited a retrospective of Hope’s film comedies for a Lincoln Center tribute. Yet even when Woody writes Steve Allen a letter—reprinted in the essay—meticulously explaining what he finds so great about Bob Hope, Steve Allen continues to insist it is “a continuation of the put-on,” and that there is “no way to resolve the conundrum.”
Steve Allen, you slick, affected, old square. I loved you and you broke my heart. I felt dirty even checking out your book from the library to confirm my memories and stir up my smoldering anger at your helpless, departed self. But you did leave a bruise that, I must admit, inadvertently prepared me to love Roy Blount, Jr.
I had never left the South, and was still smarting from the new idea that someone could despise me for my demographic. That’s when I moved from One Fell Soup to Blount’s back catalog. I started with Crackers. It changed the way I thought.
Crackers took as its backdrop the Carter presidency, and explored its cultural ramifications.
The prickly thesis statement comes pretty early on: “That’s right, I’m from Georgia, but (and) I have a sense of irony about it. But not for your benefit.” The longer version (which I associated immediately with Steve Allen’s article, one of those blazing moments when a writer is expressing just what you thought but could never quite say):
I’m from Georgia, and I guess I better leave my mind open to the possibility that I am missing something here or at least that people will assume I am—and now I’ve got to decide whether it’ll be more worthwhile to go out of my way to determine that I’m not missing anything, or to go out of my way (casually) to indicate that I’m not missing anything, or to just let those who assume I am missing something go ahead and assume it and thereby miss something themselves, which will tickle me to death.
Crackers is a book, then, about seeing yourself as others see you, and knowing they’re wrong, and knowing you’re probably wrong about them, too, and wondering if how you’re seeing those people see you changes the way they see you, or see you seeing them, and whether or not all this mess changes the way you live. It’s like Sartre meets Jerry Clower, is what I’m saying. (In fact, Clower has a wonderful cameo in the book.)
Woody Allen makes fun of the language of philosophy. Roy Blount, Jr., makes philosophy.
So, Woody Allen, the college dropout whose great film Zelig is about the fear of being discovered as a fraud, and who applies what can only be called a blue-collar work ethic to the tireless production of his movies—and therefore what you might call a real outsider—has made a mainstream career of playing the outsider, while Roy Blount, Jr.—as I read in Crackers—got to take a class called “Difficult Fiction” as a graduate student at Harvard and play tennis with a guy from Africa, to whom he had previously given spluttering defenses of Faulkner in an “incriminating accent,” all of which sounded like Heaven to me. I wanted to read “Difficult Fiction” and give spluttering defenses of something to somebody. Mostly Steve Allen.
In a way, Blount was what Woody Allen (and I) had dreamed of being: a worldly, Ivy-League-educated intellectual insider. But the fascinating thing was that Allen enjoyed the cultural cachet of an artistic insider, while Blount remained an existential outsider, never belonging to whatever group he found himself in—too much a lefty back home, “this guy with the redneck accent” to his Harvard classmates.
For so long, I had dreamed of being an outsider—of being Woody Allen—but I learned from Blount that I was an outsider already.
I went to the University of South Alabama instead of Harvard (almost the same) and didn’t drop out like Allen. Nor did I go on to graduate school like Blount. But in college, I did make friends from exotic places like France (a girl who smoked cigars!), Greece, and South Dakota. It turned out I was the one with the incriminating accent, even there, right near where I grew up, which was interesting. But I wasn’t surprised. Blount had prepared me.
Blount and Allen have everything in common (including a deep, thoughtful love of sports, which I share with neither) yet nothing: Allen, the movie star/dropout, is an outsider who becomes an insider by pretending to be an insider playing at being an outsider. For Blount, status cannot be manipulated. His humor comes from the absurd personal knowledge that an insider is an outsider. In other words, wherever Roy Blount, Jr., goes, he’s uncomfortable.
All my favorite Southerners are uncomfortable.
“Professional Southerners sicken me,” Barry Hannah has said, for instance.
And “I don’t hate it!” cries Quentin Compson, over and over. He’s talking about the South, you know.
There’s the same ambivalence in Blount, quoted here on being a Southerner in New York City:
I have often felt like a man who has been diagnosed crazy, and who has worried about it and resolved to improve, and then has visited a psychiatrist’s convention, and finds himself saying, “Yeah, I sure am crazy. I’m extremely crazy,” so no one will take him for a psychiatrist.
That kind of compelling, looping logic, the humor of it emerging from the danger of thinking clearly too much, is what makes Blount a master essayist, as the poet Beth Ann Fennelly and I decided as we were riding around in a car one day. There’s nobody like him, we concluded. When Woody Allen writes, “if my soul exists without my body I am convinced all my clothes will be too loose-fitting,” no doubt there’s real fear behind the wisecrack. But keeping us at arm’s length is part of his defense against despair. With Blount, we’re invited in, to share in this great riotous confusion of the endangered self that he prays can be pinned down by the right word. Funny I’m presuming to occupy this spot that he has vacated: Yes, when I first read Woody Allen, I immediately wanted to be Woody Allen. But I when I read Roy Blount, Jr., I wanted to learn to be me.
Photograph by Matthew Genitempo.