Rick Bragg is one of those authors I gave a shot simply because people around me wouldn’t shut up about him. It’s easy to understand why, after only a page or two; he has a gift for storytelling, one he inadvertently has described himself while reflecting on his ancestors:
I grew up at the knee of front-porch talkers, of people who could tell a story and make you believe you had been there, right there, in the path of the bullet or the train, in the warm arms of the new mother, in the teeth of a mean dog. The men, sometimes dog drunk, sometimes flush with religion but always alight with the power of words, could make you feel the breath of the arching blade as it hisssssssed past their face on the beer joint floor, could make you taste the blood in your mouth from the fist that had smashed into their own, could make you hear the loose change in the deputy’s pocket as he ran, reaching for them, just steps behind. The women in my world could telegraph straight to your brain the beauty of babies you never touched, songs you never heard, loves you never felt. They could make you cry about a funeral you never saw, make you mourn for a man you never met. They could make you give a damn about the world around you.Somebody Told Me
After The Best Cook in the World gave me my first taste of Bragg, I was hooked but good, and have been reading him steadily since – all I have left to read of his books now, in fact, are two biographies and a tribute to wooden churches. This past week I’ve read two of his collections, My Southern Journey and Somebody Told Me. For those who are familiar with Bragg’s family books or his more recent collections, Somebody is a definite outlier, without the personal intimacy that makes his books as a whole so compelling. It’s a collection of his newspaper articles from the 1980s and 1990s, and tends toward the depressing – particularly the series on the Oklahoma City bombing, in which the peace of a wholly anodyne midwestern town was destroyed by a man whose hatred for an abusive government turned him into the very monster he hated. This is followed by a series of articles about a woman who killed her own children, and a series of pre-Columbine school shootings. There are some articles in here that warm the soul, though, like a tribute to New Orleans’ last ‘voodoo priest’ (gotta love genuine Characters in an age of consumerized homogeneity) , and some amusing pieces on football. The most interesting pieces to me were those on the late George C. Wallace, for whom getting shot was something of a come-to-Jesus moment. Although not as compelling as his family stories, Bragg’s gift for connecting people’s lives to readers’ hearts and minds is no less strong when it’s strangers’ stories he is sharing.
My Southern Journey is more typical Bragg fare, consisting of articles penned by Bragg for Southern Living, Garden & Gun, and (once) GQ, and organized into broad categories like food and sports. The section on food should not, under any circumstances, be read on an empty stomach, or indeed on anything less than a painfully full stomach. Otherwise Bragg will call forth demons of temptation and the reader will find himself wondering if it’s too late to cook up some sausage gravy at eight in the evening. The stories largely draw Bragg’s personal life (comparing a grandfather’s gift with carpentry to his own ability to glue himself to the wall, or regaling readers with the tale of how his mother’s adoption of two cats quickly turned into a menagerie of cats and miniature goats, but this collection’s central subject is the South, not his family. Pieces cover food, football, the joys (and trevails) of old homes, regional talents like storytelling and buck-dancing, and reminiscences of long childhood summers. It is a celebration of a place that, while flawed, sings to Bragg more than any other place he’s been to in his long career as a journalist. I found it utterly enjoyable, enough to knock it out in one long evening sitting.