TO SAY IT STRAIGHT and before it gets lost in the rest of what follows here, this is an exceptional book in nearly every way. It may be the best book you'll read this year; certainly it will be the funniest. The book is "about" nearly everything and everybody in the country. There is no index to it, presumably because it would take about 20 years to make one, despite the fact that, as things go in this age of bloat, there are only 291 pages. But what pages! (That's the first exclamation point I've used in the last 20 years. You can see how jangled this book's got me.) Roy Blount Jr., as all good free-lance journalists should, apparently has been everywhere, talked to everybody, read everbody, kept notes, and now subjects it all to his own biases and prejudices and notions of the rightness of things.
Understand, in Blount's world a man is a Good Ol' Boy you'd hang out with and trust, or he is a sorry, spineless, egg-sucker you wouldn't take to a dogfight. Blount admires Crackers, and Crackers are people who know where they are from and who are proud of it, who take things personally, who resist every effort to standardize them, who are always ready to defend what is rightfully theirs and who are subject to slap you if you insult them. Defined in such a way, Crackers conceivably could come form New York or California or anywhere. But Blount knows Georgia best, being from just outside Atlanta, so he turns to that state to find a yardstick by which to measure all things Cracker.
The yardstick is Jimmy Carter. He chooses Jimmy Carter for precisely the reason that he lacks everything Blount admires. "Jimmy ran on all things he wasn't. He wasn't a racist, an elitist, a sexist, a Washingtonian, a dimwit, a liar, a lawyer, a warmonger, a peacenik, a big spender, a Republican, an authoritarian, an ideologue, a paranoid, or a crook. He had found one last creditable ism: isn'tism. People in Georgia had said of him, 'Well, there's not a whole lot to him.' Jimmy turned that into a forte."
The president comes in form some mean licks in this book. He is measured in every possible way and in every possible way he comes up short. Blount recounts a long filarious visit with Brother Billy down in Plains, and he finds he much prefers Billy over Jimmy. Billy's way of talking, his looks, his every action lets you at least know dead solid certain who he is. Even Jerry Jeff Walker, who wrote the very fine song "Mr. Bojangles" and who has to be the craziest man ever to pick up a guitar, comes off looking a whole lot better than our president. But by the end of the book Blount makes it clear how he will vote.
"Jimmy over John Anderson. As a young congressman, Anderson sponsored a bill to make Christianity the national religion. Non-Christian officeholders would have been required to take a king of loyalty oath. The resolution no longer reflects his thinking, Anderson says. Well, deliver me from the kind of Christian who has ever had any such thoughts beyond puberty."
In many ways, Blount's performance in Crackers is a triumph over subject, proving -- if it needed proving again -- that there are no dull subjects, only dull writers. Anyone who read his first book, About Three Bricks Shy of a Load , or who caught any of his work in The New Yorker, Esquire and other publications knows that wherever he looks he finds something funny. He was down in Yazoo City, Mississippi, for one of the president's patented Town Meetings, and he asked the folks in whose house the president was staying if he could see the room in which Jimmy and his wife would be sleeping. When he visited the room, he found the president's toilet making the constant noise that every householder knows, the shhhhhhhh sound of running water. Well, the leader of the free world couldn't be expected to sleep with that in his ear, so Ol' Roy Blount didn't do a thing but open up the tank behind the commode, adjust the little metal arm holding the Styrofoam float, and stop the noise. Only thing was, the plumbers had to be called later to fix what Roy had fixed. The plumbers turned the water off to do it. And they forgot to turn back on. "The next morning after the President left, it was discovered that he'd gone the whole night without a toilet that would flush." Blount really wanted to know . . . Well, you can see what he wanted to know. But in a rare moment of self-restraint he let it pass: "I left it at that. I didn't ask, 'Uh, how . . . exactly . . . ?' I didn't ask any follow-up questions."
To paraphrase this anecdote is to lose it. But then to parapharase anything Roy Blount Jr. does is to lose it. Neither is synopsis possible. But I know Crackers is the funniest book I've read in a decade, and I know, too, that I could not ask for a more knowledgeable, well-written commentary on our times.