copyright Bill Widener 2000


I am always vastly irritated by these people who know as much about the South as I do about lower Hobokin [sic] and on the strength of it advise southern writers to leave it and forget the myth. Which myth? If you're a writer and the South is what you know, then it's what you'll write about and how you judge it will depend on how you judge yourself.

-Flannery O'Connor

If the Coen Brothers sparked a "movement" with O Brother (and the enormously successful soundtrack) toward the disappearing south's "traditions" - or at least a new awareness or appreciation - devotees will find that the latest from author Rick Bragg, Ava's Man, slips nicely into that niche.

Bragg's treatment, however, is absent the outsider's irony that lends the film much of its humor - his work also benefits significantly from being on the inside looking out.

Which is not to say that Bragg lacks humor. At the end of his account of "The Beatin' of Blackie Lee," (which recounts his grandmother's physical battle with a woman of ill repute whom her husband had been ill-advised enough to take in as a "stray"), he concludes, "Everybody has a moment like it. If they never did, they never did love nobody truly."

Ava's Man is the story of Bragg's maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum. He writes, in an early passage, of his entertaining paternal grandfather, Bobby Bragg, "He was not cruel, merely indifferent, and between rants and incarcerations he would do his best not to step on us, very much, as we played on his porch."

Bundrum, who died before Bragg was born, on the other hand, has to be reconstructed from whole cloth. The grandson "built him up from dirt level, using half-forgotten sayings, half-remembered stories and a few yellowed, brittle, black-and-white photographs that, under the watch of my kin, I handled like diamonds."

In the homogenized South of Wal-Marts and satellite dishes, expatriates all continue to struggle with the process of integration and reconciliation. The home that we grew up with doesn't even exist anymore. And would we go back if it did?

Bragg is careful not to romanticize poverty, though he does embrace the value and culture of family - and regional identity - that seems to be disappearing from our landscape precipitiously.

It's a topic author Chris Offutt has written about eloquently, and one he discussed at great length as he gave me a tour of Morehead (where he then lived), and hiked my ass from one end of his mountains to the other.

We came in from our fall tour of the leaves, to the warmth of the fire, and a stereo fully loaded with everyone from Lucinda Williams to Mingus to Dylan, and though he spoke beautifully about the "romance" of home, he also admitted that he was "starved" for "good bookstores and cafés and music."

(He later wrote an exquisite essay for the New York Times Magazine on precisely that topic of conflict.)

That night, he and I talked about Appalachian expatriates, and the three predominant breeds. The first camp is in shame and denial - they want to repudiate their heritage. The second camp has perfected a schtick or a niche which allows them to make a living off those roots (perfecting and exaggerating their "Mamaw patois" or taking a "scholarly" approach which builds a career on Appalachia [often in film, music, and books] while directing a calculated wink at their urbane friends - i.e., that they may be from that world, but they're certainly not of it. They've surpassed it, in their minds anyway.) And the third group celebrates and embraces what's left of a dying culture - hoping to preserve it.

That's where Offutt (and others like him) live. It's where this paper lives.

And it's clear that Bragg also falls into this latter camp.

It's a popular topic.

As photographer Shelby Lee Adams once asked me, "As we become a TV satellite generation, what are we sacrificing to get to what we consider a livable community?"

And as an Ace reader eloquently wrote in a June letter to the editor, "I have often wondered how many native sons and daughters have left here for parts far and wide, ignoring the idea of what made us all so special in the first place: a clear and firm sense of home. Although it's been years since I cut my last stalk of tobacco or stood freezing on the cold cement floor of the 4th Street Tobacco Warehouse, I can still smell burley curing in my sleep and remember the pride in an honest day's effort and sweat."

So while Bragg may be writing of a culture and people south of us, his themes are universal.

If the author can be said to have a flaw (and all writers do), it's that he's guilty of occasional lapses in voice - where the narrator speaks in the vernacular of the subjects he's writing about. Which is not to say that Bragg doesn't come by his southern speech patterns and accent honest - he does - only that it creates a disruption in the rhythm when the narrator shifts from the usual journalistic voice (that would be expected of the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter) to the colloquial speech that is the parlance of the family he's writing about.

In one of countless examples, in the Prologue, he writes, "Even as an old woman, Ava could walk most people plumb into the ground" If he were quoting someone who knew Ava, the "plumb" would be right at home in the sentence. In the voice of the narrator, it's jarring.

It's the rare editor who'd successfully take on the manuscript of a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and it's the rare Pulitzer Prize-winner who consents to be edited at all, but even Hemingway said, "it flows from no one's head in perfect form.

Or perhaps more appropos, as Flannery O'Connor once wrote to Cecil Dawkins [reprinted in Habit of Being, her collection of letters], "This may seem a small matter, but the omniscient narrator NEVER speaks colloquially. This is something it has taken me a long time to learn myself. Every time you do it, you lower the tone. It took Caroline [Gordon, wife of Allan Tate] about five years to get this through my head. You get it through yours quicker."

Words to live by.


Rick Bragg was scheduled to appear at Joseph-Beth on Thursday, September 13, at 7 p.m. However, he may be delayed in NYC due to recent events. Call Joseph-Beth at 271-5330 for further information. Other works to check out include All Over But the Shoutin' (a memoir of his mother), and Somebody Told Me (a collection of his newspaper work).