I read All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg back a few years ago (my review here), and while I recognized so many of the characters as a part of the world I’ve grown up in, I didn’t love it. I just didn’t, although many people do. Something about the book seemed so sad and hopeless to me, I just couldn’t adequately appreciate Bragg’s genius. However, after reading Ava’s Man, I think I’ve finally come to recognize what so many people know about Bragg: that he writes about the South in such a way that we know he’s writing about us. He’s not writing as an outsider, with the requisite fake Southern accent superimposed over all his characters’ speech patterns. No, he definitely gets it right.
If All Over but the Shoutin’ is a beatification of Rick Bragg’s longsuffering mother, Ava’s Man does the same thing to Bragg’s maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. Charlie Bundrum is so much like bits and pieces of so many men I have known–men who know how to cobble together a vehicle out of disparate pieces of machinery they find lying about their yard; men who know what it means to be back “d’rectly”; men who have worked themselves almost literally to death in cotton fields, and later, on assembly lines of various kinds; men who really can’t see a way out of their lives of hard labor, but they do it day in and day out for the sake of the families they love. You just can’t help but love Charlie Bundrum:
He thinks that if people really wanted to honor somone who was part of this place, about this place, someone who had courage and heart, then Charlie would do just fine.
The Creamery is gone. The theater is gone. And men like Charlie are gone. Why not, he figured, erect a statue to a man in a pair of overalls and a long-billed carpenter’s cap, a hammer or a trotline in his hands and a clear pint bottle in his back pocket.
He does not believe that will ever happen, of course. But imagine if it did, if all the beloved men were cast in stone and propped up there, an army of men in overalls and jumpers and hobnailed boots, holding hammers and big wrenches and bolls of cotton in their hands. An army of grandfathers, frozen in the act of baiting hooks or opening a can of peaches with a pocketknife.
Imagine that. (196)
Of course, there is the matter of “the clear pint bottle in his back pocket.” Charlie is a bootlegger and a hard drinker for most of his life, and it is one of the only blemishes on his reputation and character, at least in my estimation. However, Bragg really doesn’t write him that way. Listen:
I am not trying to excuse it. He did things that he shouldn’t have. I guess it takes someone who has outlived a mean drunk to appreciate a kind one. (133)
I don’t know–this book just grew on me the further I read. It took me a while to get over my distaste for and intolerance of cursing, something that this book contains a fair amount of. I wrote just last week about abandoning a book because of the amount of crude and profane language it contains. What makes this book different? I think it’s the fact that I know the people in Ava’s Man, and yes, they really do talk this way. Does this make it right? No. Does this make it more comfortable for me? No, and in fact, I often avoid these people in real life for that very reason. Does this make me a hypocrite in my reading? Maybe. I just don’t think the characters would’ve been as true of Bragg had painted them any other way.
I love this book because in it I remember so many of my relatives who are long since gone: great aunts and uncles, my grandparents. Although Charlie Bundrum isn’t a member of my parents’ generation, they certainly would recognize him. Rick Bragg has such a gift for distilling a place and people I love and know into their essence in just a few words. His writing reminds me just a little of Wendell Berry’s, although I can’t say for sure that it’s their style that is similar, or if maybe it’s just that Charlie could be from Port William. (I’ve reviewed a couple of Wendell Berry’s novels here and here. I need to get back to him!)
I could finish this review with dozens of quotations I love–ones about Charlie fishing; or Charlie being delivered home by his mule, more than a little tipsy; or Charlie doing what he did best–loving his babies. Instead, I’ll finish with just two: one about Southern food, and one about the hardscrabble people of the Depression-era South:
The coffee would boil, the smell mixing in with everything else, and Charlie would begin to make the gravy. Ava would make grits, and fry up a mess of eggs, and twist open the top of a jar of preserves, and they would eat like rich people, only rich people don’t really eat this good. (172)
If you’ve ever had biscuits made with lard covered in sawmill gravy, speckled with black pepper, with piece of fried ham on the side, you’re nodding your head in agreement right now.
The children played hide-and-seek in the wet grass, and chased lightning bugs and put them in a jar with holes poked in the lid, but they never did shine all that much once you put them under glass. (193)
Bragg makes them all shine in this book, with Charlie Bundrum as bright as any star. Highly Recommended.