Roy Blount Jr.

Alphabet Juice [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]

Books Reviews Roy Blount Jr.
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Roy Blount Jr.

The best of all possible words

Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice—a relatively short encyclopedic compendium of English usage—pretends to be a practical guide a la Strunk and White or Lynne Truss. But it has more in common with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary.

The author might prefer a comparison to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. Blount shares with Bierce and Twain a gift for misdirection, an inclination to pull off the fanciest of tricks right in front of us, all the while decrying fanciness.

Alphabet Juice pegs knowledgeable as “one ugly word.” But Blount is one of our most deeply and broadly knowledgeable writers, and his new book is a personal document, a neo-Platonic manifesto exalting the natural music of language (“Doesn’t dog sound like what the English expect from a dog?”). Blount’s bull’s-eye, which he hits unerringly, is the ecstatic center where talking, writing and singing meet.

Blount is a strict grammarian with soft spots. Sometimes he wants us to do the wrong thing for the right reason, calling ain’t “a tangy, useful verb” and leaving out the comma that properly belongs in his name (see above) because “It’s one stroke of fuss that I can spare the world.”

Just as often, he celebrates the “right” thing that aggravates and bewilders and delights us because of its proximity to crazed wrongness, producing as an example this quotation, utterly correct in context: “Now we say ‘“No!”’”?”’”’”

Though Blount assumes the disguise of a classic American crank (it’s true that he’s very, very worried you won’t put the hyphen in “e-mail”), he likes to tease us with his lofty aspirations (all of which he brilliantly exceeds), flashing a hint of naked sensitivity from under a light drapery of jokes. He points out that Walt Whitman and Cassius Clay were both “Jr.’s” like himself, and that Whitman wrote “Song of Myself” and Clay changed his name and shouted, “I am the greatest.”

He seems slightly hurt that Stephen Colbert gets to appear on the lowly medium of television and “coin a meme.” It irks him that some of his friends have been quoted in dictionaries while he hasn’t, despite being on the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. Yet he claims to have no truck with hoity-toity professor types, defining meta as, “how shall I say, ‘at a level of, like, likety-like.’”

So why does Alphabet Juice remind me of the anti-fiction of David Markson (This Is Not a Novel, Reader’s Block, The Last Novel)? Here’s Markson: “Arnold Bennett died of typhoid fever after drinking Paris tap water. Deliberately drinking it, to prove to someone it was safe.” And here’s Blount: “Thelonious Monk played a new song. Somebody said, ‘What are we going to call this one?’ Monk said, ‘Let’s call this…,’ and he stopped talking. So it’s called “Let’s Call This.””

(Speaking of music, I have gathered from their bodies of work that neither Blount nor Markson thinks much of Bob Dylan—a coincidence either man would note.) Markson tells us that Moses, Virgil, Maugham and Larkin stuttered. Blount tells us that Mel Blanc, in a three-week coma after a car wreck, would answer questions addressed to Bugs Bunny but not to Mel Blanc. Markson is interested that Chatterton bought his suicide arsenic on credit. Blount finds it telling that the leader of the suicidal Heaven’s Gate cult was also a Jr. Blount leaps directly and purposefully from John Milton to Barney Google. Markson makes a jump cut from Madame Blavatsky to Brahms.

The difference is, Blount’s bursts of illumination are organized alphabetically, while Markson presents his in a seemingly random collage. Blount’s Monk anecdote is filed under naming a song. But who’s going to grab a reference book and look up naming a song? And if someone does, will he find what he’s looking for? I would argue that Blount’s alphabetization is a meta commentary on the secretly arbitrary nature of alphabetization (though see his wrathful vim on arbitrary).

So Blount has figured out a way to have his fancy cake and eat it, too, with a plastic fork like a regular joe. And guess what? He’s sharing the cake, and it’s the best cake you ever tasted.