I've never met Michael Graham in my life, but I've often read his
weekly columns with a certain half-sympathetic interest. He was raised
Pentecostal; I was raised Baptist. He went to Oral Roberts University; I
went to Southwest Baptist University. He was banned from his school paper;
I was fired from mine.
Graham continued to ruffle feathers throughout his working life, as he
points out in this debut collection of columns. He narrowly escaped a
"good ol' fashioned Rocky Top welcome" when he angered some Tennessee
rednecks with his stand-up comedy act (that's his story, anyway). He was
"banned" from Educational Radio after just three shows (the station says
he was never more than an unpaid volunteer).
Eventually, he wandered into government service, as a spokesman for
the S.C. Secretary of State, writing columns on the side for Free Times
in Columbia. Just recently that came to an end, too, when a Democratic
legislator got so incensed by the columns that he had Graham's position
I went the other way around. I wrote a weekly column for 10 years at
a series of newspapers, no stranger to the mindless pleasure of pissing
off the easily-offended. I had a fundamentalist preacher call me "pig
puke" (I had defended the release of The Last Temptation of
I had one woman demand my resignation (for saying "This Land is Your
Land" should be the national anthem), one who said God would strike me
dead (for calling Jesse Jackson a fraud), one who asked that I be censured
(for explaining the plot of Gravity's Rainbow) and the husband of
a small-town transvestite threaten me with bodily harm (for revealing that
he had once been a burglar).
What finally did me in was my habit of calling a small-minded North
Carolina community "a nasty little Nothingsville." When the good folk of
Nothingsville finally heard about it, they were livid. My editor wasn't.
At first, he laughed along with the rest of us, but some 35 letters wiped
the smile off his face. In time, I was kindly asked to find another job,
and wound up in government service. Still here, knock on wood.
The difference between Graham and I is that he thinks his opinions are
dangerous. I think they're as conventional as mine were dangerous being a
fairly regional concept. In South Carolina North Carolina, too, of
course conventional thoughts anger a lot more people than you'd think.
This is the best explanation I know of for Michael Graham, the most
"controversial" regular columnist in Columbia, and perhaps the
I know this sounds extraordinary and it pains me
to say it because I can't stand him but who else is there? The
State has yet to produce a quotable regular columnist, and it didn't
produce Graham. In fact, it's something of an achievement that Graham's
home base is not South Carolina's largest daily but a little giveaway
shopper (like we're one to talk).
Free Times is noted for three things (I note it for three
things, anyway): Graham, a weekly collection of weird news and a soft-porn
personals section that is always rich in pathos which is something no one
will ever say about Graham. He's a hothead and a smart-ass and he can on
occasion be deadly funny.
Take, for example, this gem from his acid-etched review of It's A
Wonderful Life, guaranteed to cheer up anyone who has sat through the
gazillionth airing of that classic of Yuletide masochism: "Their finances
ruined, the Baileys move into a home that resembles Hitchcock's Bates
Motel but without the coziness. Life goes on, kids are born and given
bizarre names (Zu-Zu?), and the Building and Loan stumbles forward despite
the incompetent bookkeeping of Uncle Billy, an Alzheimer's-afflicted
family member who dabbles in bestiality. Said uncle unwittingly drops an
$8,000 deposit into the evil Mr. Potter's lap, and guess who happens to
show up that day but the bank examiner and, as usual, George is broke and
well, that's when the movie really falls down."
His deconstruction of the mysteries of "mall hair" isn't
bad either: "Mall hair is poofy, but pulled back, flat everywhere on the
head except for the huge part about an inch back from the forehead. This
parallel part looks lake a firebreak of exposed scalp and black roots, and
beyond it is a stand of 40 or 50 stiff, towering bangs pointing forward
from the head like an angry, hairy satellite dish. These women look as
though if you threw a pork chop over their heads a long tongue would whip
out, grab it and suck it back into their bodies."
And this line alone is, for me, just about the last word on
vegetarianism: "we didn't evolve incisors just to rip open the cellophane
on a tofu box."
If any of this sounds familiar, if it sounds a little, say, P.J.
O'Rourke-ish, you're not too far off. Graham has learned from the best,
and he's not shy about letting you know who the best is.
Sprinkled throughout the book are references to "the infallible
Mencken." No surprise, then, to discover that Graham, not content merely
to ape Mencken, finally resorts to duplicating him: hence the name of his
firstborn, Mencken Graham.
This devotion to the Number One Old Fart of American Letters is
laudable, I suppose, but it begs a comparison that Graham can't live up
to. Mencken's misanthropy was rock-hard, Graham often sounds kneejerk and
insincere, especially when it comes to that standard Mencken target the
squalid masses, a.k.a. "the booboisie."
There's no swift kick of truth in a lot of what Graham writes, just
shallow, prep-school disdain. His columns on O.J. Simpson's trial,
rednecks, dumb college students and people who buy lottery tickets to name
a few only demonstrate how easy it is to wage war on shopworn caricatures.
Graham himself is not unlike the college students he
rails against: long on attitude; short on sense, experience and
How puzzling, then, to hear him discourse on the
general low level of the press, and its tendency to see "cynical
implications" in everything.
"If every news story calls every popular action by every public
servant a "political ploy," he writes, "what's the point in reading the
paper? You know the story before it's written."
Which is exactly how I often feel about Graham he's predictably
"cynical" about easy targets, and a real cornball about others. (The
subjects of love and Christmas reduce him to mush.)
All of this brings into serious question this book's subtitle, "Humor,
commentary and smart remarks your government DOESN'T want you to
I'd say just the opposite is true. His criticism
of Bill Clinton is tepid at best, and his otherwise jaundiced eye goes to
sleep when it comes to Republicans. He's pro-family, anti-government,
anti-vegetarian and anti-PBS at a time when the electorate is just itching
to put such a person in office. He has a general impatience of mind, a
paranoia toward the outside world, and a way of parading a little learning
that makes me think of that time when Barney Fife tried to recite the
preamble to the Constitution.
Maybe those people in Tennessee weren't pissed off at hearing redneck
jokes. They just didn't like the way a bourgeois redneck tells
Rodney Welch is a freelance reviewer who lives