Over the years Roy Blount Jr. has written a number of superb magazine articles, one of my favorites being “Knock ’im Out, Jay-ree!” a profile of the great Southern raconteur Jerry (pronounced Jay-ree) Clower.
The piece, which appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1973, possesses many virtues, among them its substantial length. Clower, a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, was the kind of humorist who liked to spread out, and Blount gave him 10,000 words in which to do so. Some reference works refer to Clower as a “stand-up comedian,” but that’s not quite right. More accurately, he was a teller of tall tales in the tradition of Mark Twain and Davy Crockett. Clower developed his storytelling skills while employed as a fertilizer salesman in Yazoo City, Miss. (customers were more responsive to riotous yarns than to dry recitations regarding crop yields), and he perfected them on the sports banquet circuit. He did not do schtick. He did rousing narratives designed, in his words, to “fling a cravin’” on an audience. This is a craft that requires space.
Blount begins the piece with a simple scene-setter. After giving a description of his 270-pound subject (“a startling apparition”) on the dais at a post-dinner speaking engagement and, importantly, establishing that Clower had played defensive tackle for Mississippi State, he essentially gets out of the way. Three-fourths of “Knock ’im Out, Jay-ree!” consists of Clower stories. By my count Blount includes 20 of them, and he lets Clower tell the majority in his own voice. This has to be a record for stories within a story, and Blount appears to flat-out relish it:
The stories Clower tells are more or less true… Clower compares himself favorably, and aptly, with such country-humorist predecessors as Andy Griffith and Brother Dave Gardner when he says, “I don’t tell funny stories. I just tell stories funny.”
He tells them all over, not just at sports banquets. In his time he has enlivened many a broiler festival and county fair, at least one tobacco-spitting contest and an armadillo festival. He has appeared at the Grand Ole Opry several times, on the David Frost and Mike Douglas television shows and on stage with country-music stars as far north as Boston. His two record albums have together sold 650,000 copies and he says with a characteristic lack of false or even true modesty that he has never had an audience that did not warm up to him eventually.
Some of Clower’s tales involve the antics of the Ledbetter siblings (Ardell, Bernel, Raynell, Marcell and W.L.). Others, including “Knock ’im Out, John!” from which the article takes its title, concern coon hunting. Most, however, are devoted to Southeastern Conference football. Clower wasn’t very good at the game, which, it turned out, was a boon to his career as a humorist. Success stories aren’t funny, but embarrassing ones are. A player from a religious college, for example, once knocked Clower down face first in such a way that he ended up eating dirt. This warrior for Jesus then declared: “The Bible says the meek shall inherit the earth.” Clower should have written him a check right there. Here, as Blount presents it, is the whole thing:
“This Preacher Mayfield forearmed me back of my head. He shoved my face down in that dirt and that grass, and my bottom lip and bottom teeth just scooped up a big mouthful of that dirt like a dragline.”
Clower sticks out his bottom lip and teeth and assumes such a graphic dirt-biting expression that his rapt audience can taste turf through the three-color ice cream. He shudders and makes a series of massive, agonized mouth-pawing motions. “I jumped up spittin’ and knockin’ the grass and the dirt out of my mouth, and I said, ‘Fella, you the dirtiest thing I ever played against in all my life. And you supposed to be a Baptist preacher!’
“And he stood up erect − they had done throwed the ball for a touchdown − he stood up erect and popped his hand over his heart and he pointed his long finger right in my face and he said, ‘The Bible says, the meek shall inherit the earth.’
“And I had just inherited a mouthful of it.”
A few readers may feel that Blount lets Clower go on a bit too long about old times, and in truth some of the stories regarding now-forgotten athletes do feel a little dated. But by and large, they hold up. Not only was Clower a spellbinder, but he was also something more. He imbued his yarns with insights into a fast-disappearing rural society, and my sense is that Blount realized as much the instant he first heard Clower open his mouth. That is why he generously quotes Clower’s account of calling home from the site of an away football game. Such a call required someone to fetch Clower’s mother from her house and take her to a country store where the neighborhood’s only telephone was located. Just that deftly, Blount uses Clower to establish that there was a day in America when many families did not possess what now is considered a basic. Academics talk about oral history. Journalists practice it.
I first read “Knock ’im Out, Jay-ree!” shortly after it was published, and only upon recently rereading the piece did I remember that Blount inserts himself into it early on as “the interviewer.” At the time the article was written, nonfiction writers were becoming more and more enamored of omniscient narrative. But before they could run, they had to walk, so occasionally they’d appear, as Blount briefly does here, as a rhetorical device to authenticate their material. They didn’t want readers to think they were piping it. In Gay Talese’s “The Silent Season of a Hero,” the author is “a man (Joe DiMaggio) didn’t want to see.” Tom Wolfe, with typical panache, referred to himself in several stories as “the man in the brown Borsalino hat.” By the mid-’70s, these writers had largely disappeared from their work. The craft had reached its seamless apogee.
Now, the trend is going the other way, especially at The New Yorker. Even in pieces in which the author’s involvement is immaterial, New Yorker writers feel compelled to declare that their subjects “told me.” Not only is this an annoying tic, it’s an indication that in our atomized age many magazine writers distrust the very notion of omniscience. To them, New Journalism is old and suspect journalism. The fact is that New Journalism at its best requires a depth of reporting that fewer and fewer contemporary practitioners are willing to pursue.
“Knock ’im Out, Jay-ree!” does something I wish more profiles did – it surprises you. Although Clower grew up in a part of Mississippi where segregation was rampant, and while his humor appealed chiefly to white audiences, he was pro-civil rights. Blount hints at Clower’s progressivism near the top of the article, then elaborates at the conclusion. Clower’s children attended integrated public schools. In the late ’60s, Clower shopped at a store boycotted by racists – a gutsy decision at the time. Not that Clower mentioned any of this in his act. He didn’t want to convert audiences. He wanted laughs.
Blount’s greatest achievement in “Knock ’im Out, Jay-ree!” is that he wrote a funny article about a funny man. Blount, of course, is a pretty fair humorist himself. His 22 wittily sagacious books include “Roy Blount’s Book of Southern Humor,” part of the Norton Anthology series, and he’s a panelist on NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” Still, it’s hard to translate what works on stage onto the page. A lot of it goes under the heading: You had to be there. Yet Blount, by letting Clower do what he did – and there’s more art to this than might initially be apparent; I particularly admire the deft way Blount paces Clower’s stories – pulls it off. To put it as Clower would have: Blount “flings a cravin’ on you.”
Steve Oney is the author of “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank.” His articles have been anthologized in “The Best American Magazine Writing 2008” and “The Best American Sports Writing 2006.”