IT TAKES A SOUTHERNER to truly understand and
appreciate sin. We were probably the first Americans to say, "Lead us not into temptation. We can find it ourselves." Blanche Boyd in The Redneck Way of Knowledge followed her temptations. The book is a collection of essays revolving around Blanche, herself. Knowing that Jesus died for her sins, Blanche sinned continuously so that his sacrifice wouldn't be wasted. She drank enough to knock the rear wheels off a Chevy. She smoked. She abused herself as they say down South with both ladies and gentlemen. Clearly, Blanche was not a belle nor a bore. Neither is The Redneck Way of Knowledge.
"Being a white Southerner is a bit like being Eichmann's daughter: People don't assume you're guilty, but they wonder how you've been affected." Boyd says in "Aunt Jenny at the Rockettes," the opening essay. The usual turning away from home, in this case, Charleston, was how it affected Boyd. The South symbolized the suffocations of the family, a heavy jasmine-scented past, congenital racism and a depreciation of the intellect. Defection to California and then New York City seemed like a cure for the birthmark of Dixie. Instead Boyd found herself rubbing up against sophisticated hypocrisy, limousine liberals, self-righteous politicos and that distinctive lack of sparkle which Yankees call sincerity. In the scale of cosmic relevance was a trip to the stockcar races (oh so trashily Southern) really much different than a trip to the ashram (oh so sincere)? Blanche did not become a Girl Guide to the Cosmos. She wisely left that to her superior Northern friends and returned home at the age of 33, a significant age for Christians. Christ was crucified at 33; it's a time in one's life that one begins to think about death and rebirth.
She exposed herself to her family's friendship. They seemed less hateful than in her youth. In fact, it was quite amazing what they'd learned in her absence or was it she who did the learning? Perhaps they all learned that people are not grapes, you can't weigh them in a bunch. Blanche would have to be taken exactly for what she was: the same yet different. And Blanche had to take her mother and aunts and siblings under those identical conditions. The years had done their work.
Lest this sound as though The Redneck Way of Knowledge leaks nostalgia, it does not. The book smells sharp. There's magnolia upstairs and skunk cabbage in the basement. Literary incense is not burned to cover the rot of life nor the joy despite the rot. Boyd has written a clear, fair and good collection of essays. Her insights vibrate with originality. "Irony is the ability to look at yourself clearly and still get the joke." In another essay she writes, "What logic can't grasp metaphor can. Metaphor is the hand thrust under the water, catching living fish. Metaphor is a passageway between fantasy and logic; it will take you someplace new."
Freed from the sinister solitude of the Northern City, Boyd returns to the entanglements of the heart, that swamp of emotion known as The South. Entrenched now in her place she joins the ranks of Alice Walker, Rosemary Daniels and a regiment of Southern writers between the ages of 30 and 50 who represent something new. These women and men are not writing about phantoms of elegance, miracles of perversion or amusing eccentrics. While his Yankee counterpart battles alienation and violence in cities of decomposing neon, the Southerner has come home and found the real people living there. And the real people who live south of the Mason-Dixon line do not suffer moral amnesia. No one understands the bloodknot tied between white and black better than the Southerner. No one understands the blind moment of "exotic violence" as Boyd would call it better than the Southerner. In such an exotic moment a human life can be destroyed or an entire world thanks to nuclear irrationality. The Southern voice is one clearly worth listening to precisely because so many Southerners have looked into the bitter darkness and despair of cultural madness. Yet each Southerner seems to pass through that horror and emerge with a lurid vitality.
The Redneck Way of Knowledge can't answer the questions before our nation today but it does answer one woman's questions about herself. Quite simply put: If this world is the Devil's toilet the only two things we have to save us are 1) the land, and 2) each other. Until one of us finds God's trombone to blow a new message to troubled earth, Blanche Boyd's philosophy seems marvelously sane.