The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg is the third of his books I’ve read, the third in a collection he has written about his family. In this one, he beards the lion in the den of his and his family’s memory: he approaches the subject of his father–the same father who comes out the villain in his mother’s story, All Over but the Shoutin’. We learn in The Prince of Frogtown that Bragg’s appraisal of his father is, by most counts and certainly by the hard evidence, pretty fair. However, the story is made a bit more palatable by the foil Bragg places it against: his own journey to stepfatherhood and how it has changed him. As much as anything, this book is Bragg’s ode to boyhood, written in his inimitable voice and style.
One word I would use to describe Bragg’s writing is poignant. I can’t really think of another author who can bring me to tears and make me nod my head in recognition quite as much as he does. A large part of that is because I’m a native Alabamian, too, and while I grew up and still reside in the other corner of the state, his culture is familiar to me in my own family’s history. The Prince of Frogtown relates his father’s childhood as a boy who grew up in a cotton mill town, the youngest son of an alcoholic father and a loving mother. Alochol and violence were just part and parcel of their lives. It’s about the disintegration of Bragg’s own family after his father finally succumbed to the power of the demon and just lost or gave up his ability to be a father or a husband. Bragg doesn’t over-simplify it, though; he writes about the environment, his own mother’s difficult decision that might’ve had a part in his father’s undoing; the classism and prejudice that made it seem impossible for the Charles Bragg to do better.
Hard but beautiful. That kind of sums up everything that I’ve read by Bragg so far. Here’s the opening paragraph of the book, just to give you a taste:
In water so fine, a few minutes of bad memory all but disappears downstream, washed away by ten thousand belly busters, a million cannonballs. Paradise was never heaven-high when I was a boy but waist-deep, an oasis of cutoff blue jeans and raggedy Converse sneakers, sweating bottles of Nehi Grape and Orange Crush, and this stream. I remember the antidote of icy water against my blistered skin, and the taste of mushy tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, unwrapped from twice-used aluminum foil. I saw my first water moccasin here, and my first real girl, and being a child of the foot washers I have sometimes wondered if this was my Eden, and my serpent. If it was, I didn’t hold out any longer than that first poor fool did. It took something as powerful as that, as girls, to tug me away from this tribe of sunburned little boys, to scatter us from this place of double-dog dares, Blow Pops, Cherry Bombs, Indian burns, chicken fights, and giggling, half-wit choruses of “Bald-Headed Man from China.” Maybe we should have nailed up a sign–NO GIRLS ALLOWED–and lived out our lives here, to fight mean bulls from the safe side of a barbed-wire fence with a cape cut from a red tank top, and duel to the death with swords sliced of a weeping willow tree. I don’t know what kind of a man I turned out to be, but I was good at being a boy. Then, a thrust to the heart only bent against my chest, in a place where I could look straight into the Alabama sun through a water-smooted nugget of glass, and tell myself it was a shipwrecked emerald instead of just a piece from a broken bottle of Mountain Dew.
I feel compelled to tell you that Bragg’s writing is full of bad language, so if that’s something you avoid, steer clear of his books. He writes it as plain and as unvarnished as he can, but he manages to see the beauty through the heartache most of the time. I can’t think of another writer who tugs my heartstrings more. (Knopf, 2008)