Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South by Roy Blount Jr. (Knopf, 383 pp., $25). Roy Blount makes me laugh out loud -- a lot sometimes. The way the Georgia emigre sees the world, that just might make me an honorary Southerner: "one reason it doesn't take much to get me back down South is that Southerners enjoy laughing more. Sometimes we will get to whooping when we laugh. We will build on each other's hilarity back and forth." Count me in. I'll even buy the next round.
And don't tell me that everyone described as a humorist does that either, because at least 80 percent of the time on their pages, I remain unmoved, untickled and unconcerned. On the other hand, what, besides emitting a donkey snort, is one to do with this self-explanation: "I went to college and a little graduate school. I studied the arts and sciences, which are what I believe in today, every damn one of them. Even, say, dance which I don't know or care anything about -- I believe in it anyway. Physics, who knows what's going on there, but I figure those who do are keeping each other honest."
It's our fault, not theirs, that we call people humorists who are driven to be candid and make sense as pungently and succinctly as possible, which is why Blount does a lot more than make you laugh. And no, I'm not going to say "he makes you think too" because anyone who thinks laughing and thinking are antithetical may be woefully inexperienced at both.
Blount (he pronounces it "Blunt" and leaves off the "Jr." except on book covers) came to New York from Georgia in 1968 with visions of the "secular heaven" revealed by his old New Yorker magazines. He has, since, written for just about everybody. He eventually moved to Massachusetts -- close enough to the film critic Pauline Kael to be of significant mercy and companionship in her declining years. Should it need to, that alone elevates all discussion of Blount, considerably -- perhaps even up to the point where one dares to mention his clear forebear among Southerners turned Yankees, Mark Twain (though in the latter-day Twain sweepstakes, it seems to me that the late Kurt Vonnegut -- another junior but ex-Hoosier -- is probably closer to the 19th century giant than Blount, a terrific writer in short forms but not one whose imprimatur is on an age's and a literature's sensibilities.)
Lest anyone think Blount can't get testy indeed with those who consider "literate Southerner" to be an oxymoron, read this book, his first collection in a decade. Writers, though, almost invariably come from the social fault lines which is why they're so good at feeling tectonic tremors. What Blount writes about is that North/South fault line. He's both Mason and Dixon, blue state and red. And for those of us who cherish him most when he gets the most Southern (who else but a Southerner would be moved to mourn the self-destruction of "Brother Dave" Gardner?), he's a tonic.
If he thinks he's not being taken seriously enough, the extremely pulpy paper of this book and lack of an index might underline his cause. There is enough charm, intelligence and uncommon common sense to make it a pleasure from beginning to end.
His brain and talent have let America be very good to Blount. They put him, after all, backstage at Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" when the late, great Roger Miller ("Dang Me," "King of the Road") wandered around saying things like "I need to get a second wind. I broke the first one." and "My father had the Midas Touch. Everything he touched turned to mufflers."
The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould edited by Steven Rose, foreward by Oliver Sacks (Norton, 653 pages, $35). When he died in 2002, Harvard's great evolutionary biologist was, without question, the greatest literary explicator of science for a lay readership. Whether the subject was dinosaurs and museums, baseball stats, the hilarious history of "scientific" brain measurement, the Triangle factory fire, Darwin and "the Munchkins of Kansas," continental drift or the "Phyletic Size Decrease in Hershey Bars" (organic entities increase in size as they evolve, manufactured entities decrease) wherein his conclusion was "it's still the same damn good chocolate, what's left of it." Gould was without peer. An omnibus of his essential best just may be, uh, essential.
-- Jeff Simon