Few writers create narrative threads so closely following the process of memory as Roy Blount, Jr. All the more apt that his memoir, Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story, manages to collect a swarming beehive of memories, incidents, stories, and mild exaggerations, bundle them together with a humorists' half-knot of narrative, and make it read like a revelation. In his search to explain and remove the "family curse" as he calls it, Blount ventures forth into the realm of what it means to be both middle-aged and a humorist and whether there is a connection between the two at all. Dominating all is that litany those two little words from his mother repeated to Blount the child, "be sweet," that seemed to have set him on this journey in the first place. Confiding without resorting to confession, the memoir's first chapter sets the tone and tenor of what will be an irreverent, jumbled, nonlinear trek. It starts with pieces of Blount's childhood in Georgia and ends with a resolution and at least a partial sense of closure with the most complex figure in his life the lonely, abused, orphan girl that was his mother. As stories spawn more stories, the reader comes to realize digression is Blount's chosen path toward that closure he seeks.
A commentary on the memories that make up memoirs, Be Sweet is not content only to revisit these collected stories of a family's past: Blount intends for the reader to participate in the very process itself. Partly, this is what it means to be a humorist in this ironic, disaffected age. But most of all, Blount see this as the most direct way to convey the honesty of an author dredging the past for answers. And the amount of material, sheer hilarious material, brought to the surface is amazing. A lengthy, near scholarly chapter, "Junior," ruminates on the accomplishments and failings of numerous famous juniors and how they must "resist the temptation to become second bananas." Then it evolves into a touching examination of the relationship between Blount and his namesake father. Similarly, another section begins with Blount detailing the requisite self-loathing required of any humorist worth his salt and ends with a look at the difficult childhood burden his mother had to bear and how Blount credits such a past for his sense of humor. Moving from the more universal of his experiences to the intimate, revealing moments, Blount's knack for finding the perfect ironic voice never falters.
A resolute and unflinching name-dropper, Blount recounts one ridiculous anecdote after another in this journey that touches on the movie stars, famous athletes, and well-known politicians he has hobnobbed with. At times, the story may brilliantly fit the narrative; other times, it begins to feel like you are sitting at the foot of a master storyteller, just hanging on for gems, not sure what is coming next.
You cannot help but feel it is intentional. Does the humorist drive the "message" of the book or is it the "message" driving and intensifying the humor? Either way, you read on, and it works. Being sweet, as we learn, may demand too much for the average person. Being funny is a walk in the park for Roy Blount, Jr.
Reviewed by Todd Keith.