In all the hoopla over four-year-old media, I forgot to write about Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans by Roy Blount Jr.
It’s always amusing to read reviews on Amazon from people who just plain don’t get it, but I can’t fault “New Orleans traveller” too much, because apparently he or she was looking for a travelogue about New Orleans. This book isn’t a travelogue, even though I feel I’ve got a better idea of the city now than I did from any number of movies or books or television specials about it. This book does exactly what the title says: rambles. And it’s a mistake going into a Roy Blount Jr. book expecting to find a hands-off, balanced analysis of the topic at hand; you read the book to find out what Blount has to say about it.
Expecting a straightforward travelogue out of Roy Blount Jr. is missing the point as much as expecting Dave Barry-esque “humorous essays” out of his essay books, or calling his memoir “self-indulgent” or “not as funny as I was hoping from the Garrison Keillor show.” Blount doesn’t just write about cities or people or politics or sports or dogs or presidents or whatever the topic is at hand; Blount writes about himself. And his friends, and his family, pets he’s owned, jobs he’s had, movies he’s seen, things he’s found at junk stores, and whatever else pops into his mind as relevant to the subject. By the end, you don’t feel as if you’ve read a travelogue as much as you feel that you’ve caught up with an old friend who for this conversation, happened to keep veering back to the topic of New Orleans.
That’s why I think Blount’s writing transcends the “humor” or “travel” or “essays” labels that get assigned to them in bookstores. Taken together as a body of work, it’s about the whole of human existence, at least as much as he’s processed. Hyperbolic? Maybe, but then again, somewhere between hyperbole and “he’s funny on the radio” describes how amazed I am by his writing. When I’m reading his stuff, it’s like watching a magician who’s pointing out the wires and mirrors and hidden pockets in his cape, but is still somehow able to make a flock of doves appear out of nowhere and leave you convinced that it’s magic. He’s written whole essays about writing and how difficult and laborious process it is, but can still come up with a perfectly concise and evocative phrase to describe New Orleans humidity (“those deep-summer days that make a person feel swathed in slowly melting hamfat”) and make it sound as if the phrase had just popped into his head in the middle of an unfocused ramble.
When people talk about writing, they talk about how difficult it is to find your “voice.” Blount’s not only found his voice, but it’s all-encompassing. It’s the voice of a man who’s got total control over the English language combined with a total lack of pretension. It’s “folksy” without being naive, funny without being meaningless, rambling without being pointless, introspective without being self-indulgent, and disarming without being deceptive. Once you’re disarmed, he can talk about oysters and orphans and leave you with sympathy for both. In this book, he talks about the death of his friend Slick Lawson, and it was neither a casual aside nor a maudlin eulogy, but real, genuine memories. And of course, memories are what writing is all about.
Blount’s been my favorite writer for years. One of my favorite things I own is a postcard he sent me in response to a fan letter I wrote to him back when I was a sophomore in college. It’s one of the old kinds, with the scalloped edges, and has a photograph of two radio personalities from Alabama I’ve never heard of. On the back are a couple of paragraphs of tiny handwriting, responding amiably to a couple of the points in the letter and wishing me well. Somebody else reading it wouldn’t think much of it — it doesn’t say a lot, and it’s not particularly funny for a “humorist,” and there are references to things that I must’ve written in my three-page computer-typed letter that even I don’t remember writing.
But it was the perfect response. In a short essay called “Having Wonderful Time Suckling Little Dog” in his book Now, Where Were We?, he writes about his postcard collection and how postcards, especially second-hand ones, always have something more going on than is obvious on the surface. Bizarre or bizarrely mundane photographs, personal messages without any context, and captions that are either completely misplaced or painfully self-apparent — the best postcard is at the same time a non-sequitur and something indefinably familiar. So what would be better to send to a young man who’d sent a long, gushing fan letter out of nowhere, expressing an admiration for his work and an odd sense of familiarity just from reading it?
Blount uses a lot of poetry in his work, and it’s almost always clever and funny and bounces around an idea. But the real poetry — the sense that you’ve just read something profound without seeing it coming, and the admiration for an idea that is perfectly expressed using just the right words — is in his prose. I haven’t yet read his biography of Robert E. Lee, but considering how much Blount talks about Lee in Feet on the Street, I’m worried that he may have kept himself out of the biography and stuck to the facts. That would be a huge disappointment. I want to see Blount write more biographies, and make himself as much as a character as he always does — not some dry, distant dump of some other person’s life, but a real conversation. “Here’s everything I’ve figured about how life works so far. What’ve you got?”