If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it too many times: memoirs aren’t written, nor are they to be read, for technical prowess. That I’ve said it that many times means I now have to eat my words. Rick Bragg has written a memoir so ably done that, well, you have to pay at least a little attention to his writing skills. I’ll give you a couple of examples in a minute.
Ava's Man purports to be a reminiscence of Bragg's maternal grandpa, Charlie Bundrum. In truth, it’s a history of his entire, rural, poor, Alabama family on his mother’s side. No, that’s not it, either. It’s the story of every poor family in the rural South of the early twentieth century. It’s the story of my family, too.
The Bundrum family, led by Ava and Charlie, lived a life just this side of the law, called no place in particular home except the woods and rivers up and down the Georgia/Alabama line. Undeterred by poverty, homelessness, and the Great Depression, their family kept growing and growing. And Charlie, moonshiner and brawler by night and roofer by day, tamed himself and established a backwoods morality that engendered love and devotion in friends and family alike.
Now about Bragg’s style: He’s clever enough with words to use a Southern dialect in a way that doesn’t seem like hokum. And unlike most memoirs, he tastefully skirts his own presence in the Bundrum saga, except for an occasional moment in his third-person narration. He gives us scenes with little dialogue (he surely knows that memoirs are more honest that way), depending on this agile narration to keep the reader in Charlie's deep woods.
And he handles dicey things in, oh, so gentle a manner. Of Charlie’s death, he gives us only this:
The men were passing a pasture gate when he just stopped, to get a breath. He looked around him, as if it was the first time he had seen anything like it, anything so fine, and fell onto the new grass.
And humor, Lord, he can be droll. In the final chapter, Bragg visits a relative who’s a bit upset at wild boys shooting up his mailbox after stealing his guns:
“I don’t even have to open my damn mailbox to read my damn mail,” he said from behind a wreath of smoke that, even from across the room I recognized as Camel nonfilters. “I can read my damn mail standing out in the middle of the damn road, it’s got so many damn holes in it.”
I said it was a shame.
“I wouldn’t be so damn mad,” he said, “if I didn’t know they was shootin’ my own damn mailbox with my own damn guns.”
I nodded my head.
“Well, he said, “they can kiss my ass and call me Shorty.”
I decided to ask him later exactly what that meant.
What Bragg conveys in Ava's Man is something common to Southern heritage – that his folks persevered in situations large and small with upbeat determination and an often grim stoicism. And not just a little bit of cleansing humor.