Few people know the South as well as Paul Hemphill, and even fewer have written about it with such understanding and style. Hemphill, who cut his journalistic eye-teeth as a sportswriter on several Deep South newspapers, now works as a free-lance writer, with the entire region as his territory. How well he covers it is revealed in The Good Old Boys (Simon and Schuster, $7.95), a collection of magazine and newspaper pieces he has written over the past five years.
The range of Hemphill's interests is wide—these pieces cover everything from sports to politics to personal reminiscence to evangelism—but there is one persistent theme: "...As the South finally joins the Union...little of what was distinctive and good has been retained." A familiar theme in contemporary Southern literature, to be sure, but Hemphill brings a fresh perspective to it, a perspective in large measure shaped by a lifetime's preoccupation with sports.
In one of his finest pieces, "I Gotta Let the Kid Go" (originally published in LIFE), Hemphill pays a return visit to Graceville, Fla., where in the spring of 1954 he made a painfully unsuccessful effort to catch on as a second baseman with the Class D Graceville Oilers. Poignantly but without sentimentality, Hemphill recalls a not-so-distant day when every small Southern town had its baseball team, when a Southern boy could wrap himself in a dream of glory on the diamond.
The dream was shattered: "For the first time in my life I had to consider something besides baseball." But Hemphill learned from the experience. He became a skillful journalist, and his own disappointment gave him a special empathy with those who have fallen along the waysides of sport.
Thus, he writes here about Bob Suffridge, the child of an impoverished mountain family who became an All-Time All-America guard from the University of Tennessee and who, when Hemphill found him at the age of 55, had declined into obscurity and alcoholism. He writes about the baseball bonus babies of the '50s, and talks about their failure to realize the high promise that publicists held out for them. And he writes about Jabe Thomas, a tough and eccentric Virginian who "ain't never had nothin' to speak of," a stock-car driver with no great prospects of wealth who stays in racing for the simple reason that he loves it.
There is much more to Hemphill's South than sports: The Good Old Boys includes fine profiles of Merle Haggard, Lester Maddox and Kris Kristofferson, and a particularly lovely tribute to Hemphill's truck-driver father. As the Good Old Boys fade out, they could not ask for a more knowing and affectionate chronicler than Paul Hemphill.