Bundrum was born in 1907 and died fifty-one
years later, one year before Bragg himself was born. Some of
the book's tall-tale, adulatory quality undoubtedly comes from
this one year gap between the grandfather's death and the grandson's
birth. It allows mystery and heroic accomplishments to color
the past without the tempering quality of portraiture drawn from
life. But Bragg does such a beautiful, delicate job of blending
that adulatory tone into a larger evocation of a seemingly distant
setting that I'm willing to believe all the relatives and family
friends Bragg draws from for his stories here.
There really does seem to be an admirably
complicated quality to his grandfather that would distinguish
him in any period, I would think. But the period in which he
lived clearly shaped him indelibly. If trying times can make
souls stronger, then supporting a family during the Depression
as a roofer and a carpenter--tough jobs in even a minor economic
stagnation--must surely leave its mark on your soul. Reading
Bragg's contrasting stories about his grandfather chasing off
drunken men who are pounding on his family's front door in the
middle of the night and taking in people fallen on hard times
made me think of a wonderful piece of advice from an old Appalachian
song: "Son, be brave but show mercy whenever you can."
And I suppose Bundrum's more profitable side job as an 'honest'
bootlegger simply adds to that complicated quality. "Other
people may have run it off from rusted truck radiators,"
their hooch laced with lead salts, invisible,
deadly. No one found a dead possum floating in Charlie's mash.
He never took a sip--not one sip--that he did not test with his
If Charles Bundrum were a character in a novel,
we'd have to rate Bragg's portrait of him highly, I think, because
he'd done such good work creating a well-rounded character.
On a larger and more significant scale, I'm
also willing to accept Bragg's claim that the southern Appalachia
of Bundrum's time was better suited for creating such complicated,
admirable men and women than it is today. The modern South, Bragg
writes, "has become so homogenized, so bland, that middle
school children in Atlanta make fun of people who sound Southern."
Charlie was no myth, and not even a legend,
really. Or at least, just a small one.
It is only when you compare him with today,
with this new South, that he seems larger than life.
The difference between then and now is his
complete lack of shame. He was not ashamed of his clothes, his
speech, his life. He not only thrived, he gloried in it.
Maybe it's harder now. More complicated.
In the new, true South, it is harder to be
poor and proud, harder to work your way into an unapologetic,
hard-eyed independence. I think Charlie could have done it still,
but he was more man than most. Imperfect, sure, but a man. A
kind mostly lost to this world forever.
Many contemporary readers may initially find
Bragg's writing voice to be a bit sentimental. In fact, it's
not. He simply explores--and shows--deeply felt, sincere emotions,
and what might strike some of us today as sentimentality is actually
Bragg's complete lack of postmodern irony. Irony might be today's
chosen voice, but so much of Bragg--not just his subject matter,
but him--belongs to the past. And I can't imagine someone
doing a better, more noble service to the past than Bragg does
here, in Ava's Man.
All Over but the Shoutin'
earned Bragg a wide audience, and Ava's Man should expand
his readership even further (especially considering its initial
printing of 200,000 copies). But Bragg has actually been a journalist
for more than twenty years (he won a Pulitzer for feature writing
in 1996), and readers looking for more Bragg work should be pleased
to see that his collection of newspaper stories, Somebody
Told Me, is now being released in paperback. (It was printed
in hardcover last year by the University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.)
For all the poetic beauty he brings to Ava's Man, the
newspaper collection shows he's equally adept with shorter forms
whose demands at least initially seem decidedly different from
They all share strongly felt (but not sentimental)
emotions, though, and Bragg's commitment to stories about surviving
in dire circumstances resonates through the collection, from
the stories of a ninety-year-old woman trying to stay alive in
a bullet-riddled New Orleans housing project and a ten-year-old
autistic boy staying alive in a Florida swamp to, for that matter,
a pig farmer who refuses to stop playing country music for his
pigs, no matter how much the country club next door complains.
Some of the more poignant stories collected
here re-define what survival means, in its barest form. There's
a touching story about a Guyanan homeless man who refuses to
pay for expensive Manhattan meals so he can be housed and fed
on Rikers Island, and Bragg does splendid (if unnerving) work
describing the paranoia and uncertainty an Alabama man feels
after spending thirty years in Angola Prison for a murder he
didn't commit. He is, Bragg writes, terrified of an unknown world
and the chance that he might be sent back to prison for an equally
Again and again, Bragg's stories evoke an
unsettling, abiding feeling that the world--especially today--isn't
as stable or as changeless as we would like. None of us are shielded
from sudden, catastrophic violence or government-sanctioned or
economy-driven loss of freedom. Our fates, in short, are not
always of our own making, and Bragg excels at reminding us of
this frightening fact. Many of his subjects could probably relate
to this description offered by a man whose sister and wife were
murdered in wholly unrelated acts of violence:
Mr. Larson says he sometimes feels like he
is trapped in a revolving door. Inside it, spinning with him,
are the murders, all the sadness and horror of losing his sister
and his wife. Outside is a safe and sane place that he has to
get back to, but the doors just keep turning.
Much of the material in Somebody Told Me
will probably be readily remembered by Bragg's newspaper readers,
and everyone will remember at least the general outlines of a
few of his subjects (like the Oklahoma City bombing and the Susan
Smith murder case, to say nothing of the school shootings about
which Bragg writes at length). But the emotional fervor he brings
to the stories and the details he so expertly selects for print
demand repeated readings. Bragg is a resoundingly important,
satisfying writer, and it's compelling to read through twenty
years' worth of his often unforgettable journalism.