At Random: Thumbs way up for new book

The recent death of Roger Ebert was a reminder that as a film critic, he had many imitators, yet no real equals.

Ebert and his friendly rival, fellow film critic Gene Siskel, popularized the thumbs-up, thumbs-down rating system while assessing the latest movies on their syndicated review show, “At the Movies.” The format proved so appealing that other critics copied it, and we briefly tried a similar scheme in our office during my own days as a movie critic for The State-Times, The Advocate’s now-defunct sister paper.

An editor thought a weekly pair-up between me and Advocate arts writer Rod Dreher might produce some lively sparks. The only problem, as Rod and I learned after several weeks of comparing notes about the latest features at the cineplex, is that we tended to agree on just about everything. Our collaboration ended when The State-Times closed in 1991, but Rod and I remained friends, even after he moved away to begin a series of newspaper jobs that advanced him to national prominence.

Recently, I’ve found myself once again nodding in agreement with Rod as I read his lovely new memoir, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” which chronicles the death of Rod’s sister, a transition that inspired him to move back to his hometown of Starhill near St. Francisville.

Rod’s book is about many things, but it considers the way that a small town can act as a blanket — sometimes pleasantly warm, sometimes suffocating. Rod weighs the possibilities and perils of life in close-knit, rural Starhill before deciding that the place where he began is where he and his family need to be now.

“Contemporary culture encourages us to make islands of ourselves for the sake of self-fulfillment, of career advancement, of entertainment, of diversion, and all the demands of the sovereign self,” Rod tells readers. “When suffering and death come for you —and they will — you want to be in a place where you know, and are known.”

A woman once said of the writer Henry James that she had never met a man “so assailed by the perceptions.” Rod has a similar gift for feeling the world and expressing it on the page.

He recalls that the summer of his childhood “smelled like neat’s-foot oil, light beer in a can (you’d sneak a sip when your dad asked you to fetch him a fresh one out of the cooler), Off! mosquito repellent, the decaying wood of ... bleachers, and the smoke from our folks’ Marlboro Reds.”

Such passages reminded me of James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” in their power to evoke this region’s hottest months.

Rod’s book has shared my nightstand with Ebert’s “Life Itself,” the beautiful memoir he wrote after falling ill.

Both books are reminders that questions of life and death can bring veteran film critics to write about something more important than the movies.

In their own way, Rod Dreher and Roger Ebert tell the story of homecoming, which is, usually, the most meaningful trip we’ll take.