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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

(So. A bit of exposition mixed with full disclosure. A couple months ago I went through a period of scouring the Internet in search of potential voters for the BlogPoll. I sent off a series of email invitations to people, a few of which went out to media members with their own blogs. I expected that these would be universally scoffed at and deleted. This expectation was largely met, except for one Warren St. John, who replied kindly and offered to send me a review copy of his book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. Let it be known, then, that I'm predisposed to like Mr. St. John. He, in between writing things for the New York Times, deigned to reply to me and participate in the BlogPoll. I got to feel like a big shot by picking up a review copy of a book. He's also really nice.

I would like to think I'm enough of a hardass to slam
Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer despite these facts, but since I'm not going to do anything of the sort I figure it's ethical to tell you that I think Warren St. John is an excellent man and since he sent me a book that I enjoyed very much I feel it is only polite to tell you about it.)

There is a rough divide between people that serves as the impetus for both Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer and this review-type-thing stemming from the story of an elderly couple of Alabama fans who skipped their daughter's wedding to go to a football game against Tennessee, though they made the reception. Most people who run across this story are horrified. Most are horrified at the parents' callous treatment of their daughter. Some are horrified at the daughter forcing such a choice on the parents. As someone who has warned friends and family for years that Brian Doesn't Go To Fall Weddings, I side with the parents. To the world at large, this means that there is Something Wrong With Brian.

The review blurbs featured on Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer's cover and day-glo neon insert page indicate that I have something of a disconnect with the world at large, who appear to be daughter-siders all. The quoted reviews tend to say things about St. John's "empathy for his subjects" (NYT) or discuss his successful foray into "Southern football mania" (Vanity Fair) to present Alabama fans in the "full frenzy of their nuthood" (NPR) so well that by the book's end, the "insanity makes just a little bit of sense" (Men's Health... Men's Health?), and thus pretty much miss the point entirely. St. John may have put on his pith helmet and hacked his way into the Alabama jungle to study the magnificent primates therein (I'll take this analogy sans racial overtones, if you don't mind), but Jane Goodall he ain't. The situation is more like if one particular gorilla decided to go to Columbia, get a swanky haircut, and then come back to study not the apes but rather himself via the lens provided by the natives.

The NPR review even mentions that St. John tackles his "subjects" "without condescension." Without condescension? How... what... what? How, in fact, does one condescend to himself? I have to wonder if these people missed the part in the book where St. John tracks down a wealthy developer whose only fanaticism more powerful than 'Bama is a desire to be home in Mobile an hour after the game. The developer allows St. John to watch his escape, which starts with two minutes left in every game. St. John's response: "I tell him I'll be there if the game isn't too close." That's, to use the parlance of our times, my dawg.

The game (against LSU) does not appear to be too close when St. John leaves for the skybox, but when the appointed time comes Alabama leads by six and LSU is starting a frantic two-minute drill to win. LSU quarterback John Booty, unable to find an open target, is smashed to the ground deep in Alabama territory with a few seconds left. An injury timeout is called:

"C'MON!" the developer shouts.

Instinctively I follow.

"Hey wait--" I call. "It's not over!"

We run through the gate, out of the stadium toward a white fan with its doors open. Everyone piles in. The doors shut, and before anyone can even utter goodbye, the van pulls away.

"It's not over!!!"
Chilling. And revealing. If I may be so bold, permit me to declare that St. John is One Of Us (us if you are the kind of person who involuntarily shuddered at that last paragraph, that is). He's written a book that resonates very differently with Us than it does with Them, because it's half about why we diehards are the way we are.

As a person whose father declared for years that he was was going to buy an RV when he retired and thought that was an idea with a certain irresistible appeal, I am curious about this as well. Why am I--a person who, despite appearances to the contrary (if you seek a maniacal obsession, look around you), qualifies as rather normal--prone to screaming obscenities at the television when something adverse happens to men I've never met playing a game that has no real impact on my life? Diehards have all asked this question, usually after something soulcrushingly impossible happens. Diehards have heard this question more times than they can count. It's the Big Question of fandom, simply expressed in one word:


St. John tries to explain it with serotonin and the like and comes up about as empty-handed as I do when asked. I usually break into a majestic swooping thing about the last true drama, one bound to no strictures of narrative, where the happy ending either given or denied has no overriding moral message and thus when the ball is in the air, heading for its destiny blah blah blah. People usually look at me like I'm crazy. Which I am. It's clear that the direct approach to answering the Big Question is not a wise one.

The thing about RJYH that endears it to me so is that it provides an indirect glimpse of the answer to the Big Question through the smoky glass of fans who are slightly, charmingly off. It does take some extensive eccentricity to roll about in an RV that costs about as much as your house (or, in St. John's case, about as much as a Segway). Rearranging your life around the activities of a football team is objectively crazy in whatever place High Falutin' Book Ree-voos come from, but the striking thing about the RV crew in the book is that not one of them thinks the lifestyle they're leading is strange in any way whatsoever. Sure, there's a guy in need of a heart transplant who is risking his life to attend Alabama games, but when asked about it, he shrugs off the suggestion that he's crazy: life without Alabama football isn't worth living.

At some point towards the end of RJYH it became clear. Why? Well, why not? You have to have a community, whether it digs parades and high quality manbeef or I dunno, church or follows around a football team. And RJYH makes a damn good case for the latter, translating the world of college football into a language that even coastie infidels can understand. As a full-fledged college football nut, it sings to me.

So. It's good. Warren's really nice. I suggest you buy his book.

(You can read the introduction here and the first chapter here. If these do not indicate to you that it is a book worth reading then I challenge you to a duel. Not like a shooting duel, but maybe a slapping duel. Because that's the way I roll. You can buy it here (<-- not an affiliate link, to remove potential conflict of interest).)