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Past and Present
Rick Bragg's
Ava's Man & Somebody Told Me

by Doug Childers

In Ava's Man and Somebody Told Me, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and memoirist Rick Bragg shows how stories of survival can provoke deeply felt emotions without ever feeling sentimental.

In All Over but the Shoutin' (1997), Rick Bragg told the story of his mother's struggle to raise three sons in the dire poverty of the Deep South. It was a beautiful, well-received book, but in his new book, Bragg writes that people he met at book signings and on the street would tell him he'd short-changed them by introducing Charles and Ava Bundrum, his maternal grandfather and grandmother, "in too much of a rush." After all, his mother's heart and backbone had to come from somewhere, right? In Ava's Man, he sets out to rectify the earlier book's rushed omissions and, he writes, "to give one more glimpse into a vanishing culture for the people who found themselves inside such stories, the people who shook my hand and said, 'Son, you stole my story.'"

The result is a beautiful, perhaps even perfect book that's written in a country-tinged voice that never shirks the seemingly tall-tale quality Charles Bundrum's life seems to evoke.


He was a man who did the things more civilized men dream they could, who beat one man half to death for throwing a live snake at his son, who shot a large woman with a .410 shotgun when she tried to cut him with a butcher knife, who beat the hell out of two worrisome Georgia highway patrolmen and threw them headfirst out the front door of a beer joint called the Maple on the Hill. He was a man who led deputies on long, hapless chases across high, lonesome ridges and through brier-choked bogs, whose hands were so quick he snatched squirrels from trees, who hunted without regard to seasons or quotas, because how could a game warden in Montgomery or Atlanta know if his babies were hungry?


Ava's Man
Rick Bragg
Alfred Knopf
259 pp.
$25 order now logo


Somebody Told Me
Rick Bragg
Vintage Books
277 pp.
$13 order now logo


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," Bragg writes,


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 own liver.


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 a memoir's.

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 unfounded reason.

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. Click here to find any book!


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