Sunday, June 7, 2009

Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer

Mississippians love their books. They have to, what with being the state known for Faulkner, Welty, Tennessee Williams, John Grisham, and others. Planet readers were astonishingly literate and one of our constants was our book section. We did small book reviews and had lists of regular book signings, and every now and then I'd do a book review (we had an editor and several freelancers who loved to do them). This was just one of my favorites.

I’m sitting on the couch, watching Olympic event after Olympic event and nearly drooling at the opportunity to watch my Chiefs smack around the Rams on preseason Monday Night Football (by the time this sees print, I’ll find out if I was right). I’ve made no secret of my love of sports, or of the fact that Kansas City football and baseball are imprinted on my soul. I’m also a New England Patriots fan – many moons in Maine caused me to adopt them, but they are a distant second compared to my beloved Arrowhead Stadium roughnecks. I’m a half-assed Ole Miss fan, simply because I went to a cow college in a neighboring state, one in which the football team found mediocrity something to strive for. I once screamed so loud and so long – at a high school football game – that I broke my voice.

Put simply, I’m a sports fan.

So when I had a chance to review Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer I jumped at it. St. John, a New York Times writer and crimson-blooded Bama fan, has written one of the funniest and most insightful books on sports-based psychology ever written. Partly a guided tour of the SEC, partly a history of Alabama football and the legacy of “Bear” Bryant, partly a season-long memoir by a very skilled sports writer, and partly a handbook of RV etiquette, Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer is simply the most entertaining nonfiction book I’ve read in years.

Named after one of Alabama’s crowd chants, St. John’s first book begins with an honest description of his own fan obsessions, such as paying for three hours’ long distance while in college to listen to an Alabama-Auburn ball game over the phone. But it kicks into gear when St. John decides what his mission is:

“I wanted to understand how and why something so removed from our lives – something that doesn’t affect our jobs, our relationships, or our health (hangovers notwithstanding) – affects us so much emotionally,” St. John writes. To do that, he chooses to immerse himself in the RV subculture of sports fandom, following those mobile fans from game to game around the South. On the way, he meets numerous other football fans – most, but not all, Bama supporters. Most are portrayed with some great affection, like Chris and Paula Bice, a South Carolina couple who are the only people to invite him to travel in their RV, and John Ed (“John AY-ud”) Belvin, a ticket broker from Tuscaloosa (and Kenny Rogers look-alike) of whom St. John writes:

“I’m beginning to develop an appreciation for John Ed’s strange personal lexicon. If he doesn’t like someone, that person is likely a “mullet-head,” or else a “fruit loop.” (Sometimes when his cell phone doesn’t work, it too can qualify as a mullet-head.) Someone who is socially awkward is a “weird piece of cheese.” John Ed is also fond of citing himself as an authority on a wide range of topics. The setup is always the same: “I made the statement one time that…” followed by a prediction that has proven abundantly true in the interim.”

St. John’s ability to turn a phrase puts me in mind of an amiable Tom Wolfe. Unlike most journalists, he is totally free from the name-date-this happened-that happened style that passes for quality writing. In fact, he comes across as part pop psychologist, part Southern storyteller, and part stand-up comedian. He writes:

“At big games, motor homes are so tightly packed that a person could nearly circle the entire stadium by walking along their rooftops, although as I learned firsthand, you should never walk along the rooftop of a stranger’s motor home because there’s a decent chance he will shoot you.”
St. John is not only amusing, but insightful. He has done his research, quoting from sources as diverse as Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 treatise on the mentality of crowds, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, to historian Allen Guttman, who is cited for his history of the tailgate party. It’s not dull and dry, but it is research.

Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer is a remarkably evenhanded piece of work, one that is able to humanize a group of people often unfairly dismissed as uneducated, lazy louts. And yet, St. John does not shy away from describing the seamier sides of fandom in the South: the obsessive-compulsive behavior, the occasional racism, the threats of violence, and some of the smarmy acts of the Old Boy network.

Rare is the tome whose back cover praise matters. For this one, praise by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Tony Horwitz (author of Confederates in the Attic), and H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger (author of Friday Night Lights – arguably the best book ever written about high school sports) is well deserved and demonstrable of the skill St. John possesses.

This is a good book. For any sports fan, it should be required reading.

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