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Katherine WhittemoreWhen Robert Benchley's brother died in childhood, he overheard his stricken mother wailing, "Why couldn't it have been Robert?" When Mark Twain was a boy, he peered through a keyhole and saw his own father being autopsied. If an early trauma makes one grow up to be a humorist, what's Roy Blount Jr.'s excuse? In a word: Mom. She was a humdinger, a suffocating malcontent, an orphan herself who assumed everyone would abandon her, including her children. As her talented Georgian progeny writes: "Why have I pursued humor to such an absurd extent -- to the point of vocation -- if not because I grew up desperately wishing I could do something to keep my mother from being so sad and angry?"
Be Sweet is a mother-centered semi-memoir that is by turns enlightening and maddening. I'll dispense with the irritations first: the prose shaggy-dogs all over the place, with many digressions falling flat (there's a weak set piece where Blount tells jokes from the perspective of his infant self). And the name-dropping gets to you. We learn that Billy Martin thought Blount was Mickey Mantle on the phone, and Blount crows how he once made the poet John Ashbery "crack up."
But the hardest stuff to take is the way the twice-divorced Blount limns the women in his life. You don't get a sense of either of his wives, for one thing. He stews in generalities, and it's creepy, it's self-absorbed. "Women are always right when feelings are involved, and feelings are always involved as soon as a woman sets foot in the room," he bites. Males withhold, he adds. They "hang back from calling on the phone, from chatting at breakfast, from saying 'I love you' between anniversaries." Really? I don't buy it, and if this is true of Blount -- who is supremely verbal and clearly unhappy -- then two words come to mind: 1) Get 2) Therapy.
I admire Blount's work. If you can push past the misogyny, his book has real moments. The chapter on being a Jr. shines. His love for his own kids and grandsons is touching. He can be rippingly funny and has a gift for the right phrase. Georgia dirt, for instance, is "sweet potato-colored." Baseball player Eddie Mathews had a voice that "sounded like a backhoe scooping riprap."
This son realizes that his career -- which we learn much about -- springs from the ungrantable wish to heal his mother, plus the fact that she was a real wordsmith herself. "My mom loved me to pieces," Blount admits. "And I'm still trying to put them together."