Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Reading Rick Bragg

I've been a die-hard Rick Bragg fan since I got my hands on a galley for his first memoir, All Over but the Shoutin' (Pantheon, 1997), set in and around Jacksonville, Alabama. It was a searingly honest book, telling what little he knew of his alcoholic father and the plenty he knew of his mother. She raised three sons mostly on her own, with a little help from her folks. She picked cotton and did laundry to get by. That one of her sons grew up to be a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist made me so very proud for her. Rick Bragg's love for his mama runs so deep it rises up off the page. He's got the kind of colloquial storytelling talent that can't be faked. That man can write the stars down from the sky as far as I'm concerned.

Next Came Ava's Man (Random House, 2001), a memoir looking back at the life of his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. It's not Mr. Bundrum's bootlegging or his churchgoing that I remember, more his determination to take care of his own during the worst of the Great Depression. Bragg must have done a heap of research and oral history because he never met his grandfather, yet made him come so alive.

So when The Prince of Frogtown (Knopf, 2008) came along, I was elated. This time around, there is a double focus on fatherhood. Bragg has become a step-dad and writes humbly of his ever-deepening and often mischievous relationship with "the boy" (his name presumably omitted with respect for the kid's confidentiality). Bragg also did plenty of digging around to find more back stories about his alcoholic father. These were harder to read. I talked with one library customer who said she had to skip over some of these because they were too disturbing, and because there have been so many other books about alcoholic parents. Yes, these stories were hard to take, heartbreaking really; but I was in thrall to Bragg and kept reading.

His gift for metaphor is one I admire. Even when the metaphor is simple, it is so fresh; for instance, he refers to a character who is "as bald as a boiled egg". Can't you picture that?

More seriously, he explains why he had to write more about his father: because in the first book "he became nothing more than the sledge I used to pound out her (his mother's) story of unconditional love." Now, having become a father figure himself and although he thought he was done with the subject, it was time to dig deeper into the life of Charles Bragg. The most unusual quality of this book is its contrast between the two types of chapters. The ones about the boy have a searing, heartfelt, dizzy joy about them when again and again, despite doubts and what can only be called class differences, Rick Bragg connects with his stepson and receives his respect. How healing this relationships is, and how full of light these chapters are. Then we slog through the much longer chapters about his father. But all in all, there is much catharsis.

I'll take any chapter on any subject from Bragg. Having traveled the world as a journalist, he is now a professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. Good to think of this 'Bama boy back home!

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