Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
The “Etowah” in the title to Raymond L. Atkins’s recently published book refers to a 164-mile-long waterway rising in northwest Georgia to begin flowing south and then west through Rome, Georgia. If one had the interest, one might build a raft and, Huckleberry-like, float along through Alabama down to Mobile and, from there, out into the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Atkins lives along the Etowah, which flows past his backyard, past his house that, as he notes, is very old.
There’s a Stanley Plumly poem from, oh, 1974 of the same title: “Wrong Side of the River.” It reads something like this: “I watched you on the wrong side / of the river, waving. You were trying / to tell me something. You used both hands /and sort of ran back and forth.” In the poem, the narrator wishes to say something to the person on the other side but decides to do nothing but stand still, “thinking that’s what you do on the wrong side of the river.”
Which is not like being on the wrong side of the tracks, a different metaphor, and poor, and divided from the rest of the town. But when Mr. Atkins was young, an uncle called him a “wisenheimer,” an interesting word. There are variants, including “wise cracker” or “wise guy,” and they simply refer to someone who enjoys jokes, who’s sometimes feeble or sometimes not, but who’s often “wise” and insightful. “Wisenheimer” is the perfect word to describe many Southerners.
There’s no table of contents to the book; vignette follows vignette much like the green river Etowah flows and eddies. Mr. Atkins starts with a smallish piece, “New Year’s Resolutions.” And why not? He’s accustomed to merely changing the dates, last year’s resolutions becoming this year’s resolutions. He’s at an age when he’s ready to make some diet changes, “even if it kills [him].” The gold standard these days? Kale, a wonder food that will do everything “from reversing hair loss to putting twinkles in eyes and dimples in smooth chins.”
Which turns out not to be one of those clean-your-plate kinds of foods, more like liver and brussels sprouts. With his usual humor, Mr. Atkins writes that he once tried to feed a sprout to the cat and, well, said cat scratched him and ran away. His resolution for the new year then? He could and ought to eat more healthy foods, but because he knows he’s not going to do that, he better stick to what he knows he can abide: for the fifth year in a row he vows not to skydive.
Humor, as Freud or another person by the same name once pointed out, is the best way to deal with life’s many hassles, or as the therapist might say, humor owns a coping benefit. If, in other words, one takes one of our usual moody days when things go wrong and, well, makes room for humor, then one can adopt a playful attitude, complete with clever quips and poking fun at one’s self. Or as Groucho once said, “If it weren’t for the brief respite we give the world with our foolishness, the world would see mass suicide in numbers that compare favorably with the death rate of lemmings.”
Mr. Atkins is not about to gather himself and his brood together and rush over a cliff into the green Etowa. He knows it’s never too late to polish one’s humor as he does in the second vignette, “First Car.” He’s at a red light when another “automobile” coasts up with rattling and strange noises; the vignette goes on. The noise vibration is from a radio turned all the way up, the “dulcet tones of Lil Wayne,” his favorite rapper, give or take.
And so it goes, back in the day, his own first car, a 1958 MG Roadster, a barn find….and then with the sobriquet, no sense.
The vignettes go on: Parenthood, Absentmindedness (the first to go), Home Truths, and so on. Humor is defined as the tendency of a particular cognitive experience to provoke laughter and provide amusement; in abounds in this book.
But not pie in the face.
The ballet, Mr. Atkins confesses, was actually on his bucket list (right there at number 37), but may have been a filing error. And too late now because once at the ballet the theater folks posted guards and bolted the doors. So there he was, stuck for the next three hours with an eight dollar beer and trying to make the best of it.
It was written in France, this ballet, by a couple of French guys, “Coppellia,” and “I guess that’s all we need to say about that.” The synopsis? One of the local boys falls in love with a doll. Everyone dances around the stage. The end. But with all the hoopla going on after the show, one would think someone had won the Super Bowl. “It made me want to pour a cooler full of Gatorade over the whole bowing bunch of them.”
Is the humor simple? Well, there may not be a unified theory for hilarity, but a visit to the lighter side of Mr. Atkins’s book is surely entertaining. Need a therapist? Save your money and read his wonderfully domestic story of a husband taking on the chore of spring cleaning or the vignette on intimidating technology.
He’s been at this craft for years. His biography notes that he’s been writing since third grade when he penned an essay on Christopher Columbus and landed a “D.” Too many science fiction ray-guns for the third grade teacher. Over the years the humor has become more subtle and arranged in pitch-perfect seductive prose.
Raymond L. Atkins is a born story-teller.