Life of a Southern humorist: slow-going at times

Monday Book Reviews

November 26, 1990|By Kevin Cowherd

IF I EVER GET BACK TO GEORGIA, I'M GONNA NAIL MY FEET TO THE GROUND. By Lewis Grizzard. Villard Books. 308 pages. $17.95. LET US agree from the get-go that Lewis Grizzard, syndicated humorist for the Atlanta Constitution and best-selling author of 13 books (including the wonderfully titled "Elvis is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself") is a very funny fellow.

Better yet for his legions of devoted readers, he is a very funny writer who serves up heaping portions of Southern-fried rumination on everything from singles bars, cheeseburgers and pick-up trucks to his fear of flying and his three divorces -- his third wife wrote a book about him and called it "How to Tame a Wild Bore."

Having said that, it must also be reported that "If I Ever Get Back to Georgia . . ." is not one of Grizzard's liveliest efforts. The book is basically a chronicle of his career as a newspaperman, with a few interesting tidbits about his personal life (including those three nasty divorces). But it is over-long and too densely packed with details of his childhood, college life, etc. and minutia about the various newspapers he worked for that only the autobiographer himself could truly appreciate.

Which isn't to say the book does not have its moments. Grizzard is simply incapable of extended dullness, and so the book often sparkles with amusing tales of a newspaperman's life and the characters Grizzard has run across in his long (although he's only 44) and colorful career.

Perhaps the most hilarious anecdote recounts the day the editor of the Athens (Ga.) Daily News called a young Grizzard into his office to prepare for potentially the biggest local story ever: the Second Coming of Christ.

In the event that Jesus actually chose small-town Athens over such notorious sin bins such as New York or Los Angeles, the editor, Glenn Vaughn, wanted the paper to be ready with the story.

"Right," thought Grizzard. "We certainly would want to beat the Banner-Herald. Lyndon Johnson coming to town was big, but this, this would dwarf even that."

For his part, the energetic Vaughn had already laid out the front page. On top of a huge head shot of Christ culled from a religious art book (in case the paper's own photographers failed to deliver a shot of the actual ascension) he had placed an eight-column, over-the-masthead, 124-point headline that tastefully blared:

"HE'S BACK!"

Underneath, a smaller headline said simply: "Details, Page 2."

As Grizzard recounts, Vaughn entrusted him with writing the cut-line (or caption) for the picture of Christ. Grizzard's best effort was: "Athens Set to Give Hero's Welcome to Returning Son of God, Jesus Christ (pictured above)."

Another wonderful story is told of Grizzard's days in the sports department of the Atlanta Journal, when golfer Jack Nicklaus's father died and a Journal sportswriter finally succeeded in getting Nicklaus on the phone.

Grizzard writes: "We were at very close quarters. Everybody could hear the conversation that ensued:

"'Jack?' he began. 'Teague.'

"There was a pause, and then: 'Teague Jackson . . .'

"Another pause.

" 'Atlanta . . .'

"Pause.

" 'Journal.'

"After Nicklaus had apparently nailed down the identity of the party with whom he was speaking, Teague said: 'I'd like to offer you my condolences on your father. I know just how you feel.'

"There was one more pause and then:

"'No, he's still alive.'"

The problem with the book is that there are too few of these gems scattered throughout the often tedious recollection of Grizzard's formative years in Moreland, Ga., his undergraduate days at the University of Georgia, his various jobs (including encyclopedia salesman and banker) until becoming a full-time newspaperman and his work at several Georgia newspapers as well as a miserable three-year stint at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Perhaps a chronology of the Second Coming would merit that sort of attention to detail; it seems a bit much for a chronicle of a 44-year-old humorist's career.

If you ask me, the most endearing quality of the book is that Grizzard's unbridled passion for newspapers and newspaper people shines through in page after page. Yet even a huge fan of Grizzard's and a newspaperman (I plead guilty to both sins) found the book slow-going at times.

Kevin Cowherd is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

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