Rick Bragg, the author of All Over but the Shoutin’, says in the introduction to this book that people would come up to him and tell him that they felt cheated out of the story of his grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. They wanted to get to know him and learn what he was like. Bragg decided to give to us this book, Ava’s Man, to repay the debt. I’m glad he did.
Without ever having met his grandfather, Bragg writes about him and his surrounding family with an ease that felt lacking to me in his first book. He’s an incredibly descriptive and evocative writer. It’s a joy to read about the world of the Deep South from the twenties to the fifties, about the back woods, about running stills and raising children and moving to find work, about both hard times and three-egg days. It’s a pleasant read. I’m not sure if you can get a full understanding of Bragg’s mother’s family without having read his first book, but it’s worth the try because Charlie is such a warm man, and Bragg shows that light in such a grand way.
Bragg still has the issue of sometimes using his remarkable talent for writing to take on a persona (most likely genuine) that is at turns journalist-straight to rural-southern. It shifts back and forth, and is at times jarring. I appreciate the attempts to make his accounts of life in the first half of the twentieth century authentic, and to establish himself as an authority, as part of rural southern culture, but I think he has to pick one voice or the other. Either make the rest of the tone fit calling liquor “likker” and your mother “momma,” or write in a concise and tight voice that doesn’t use the colloquialisms.
My only other issue with this book is Bragg’s occasional over-sentimentalization of his mother’s family. Take, for example, his account of his great-grandmother Mattie’s gravestone:
In the spring of 1994, a tornado, the storm of the century, tore across the mountain and dropped onto the Mount Gilead cemetery, knocking some of the headstones over and pulling others from the ground. Mattie’s headstone was untouched.
Why, precisely, is it so interesting that her gravestone was left standing? It apparently wasn’t the only one to survive, since he doesn’t state that; Bragg is consistent and would have done so if it did, since it makes a better story. He apparently feels it makes some comment on her character, but feels forced and underwhelming to me. He also takes some potshots at the larger American society, never saying outright but implying that those in the rural South were (and are) superior, more worthy of empathy, and more poorly treated. This feels wrong and is what turns me off of his books; just because they’re your people doesn’t mean that they’re better people.
Overall, though, Ava’s Man feels smoother and less bitter than All Over but the Shoutin’. I suspect this is because Bragg is separate from his subject, to a certain extent — he is no longer writing about himself and his struggles to fit with both his mother’s world and that of contemporary America. He is writing about someone whom he loves, yet never met. He had to do research, discover and explore the events of his grandfather’s life, talk to relatives and friends. He had to get it right, for them, for his readers, and for himself, and getting it right meant capturing Charlie’s essence. That essence is lighter than Bragg’s own, and he was mostly successful.