Books

His father lost, his son found

Sometimes, it feels as if Rick Bragg isn't so much writing as erupting like some Mount St. Helens of adjectives, adverbs, nouns and all the rest of it. This man can put the words together. The former New York Times national correspondent, 48, now has done something not many writers, even really good ones, can get away with -- finished a three-book memoir.

Bragg's first such effort, published after he won the Pulitzer Prize as a Timesman, was "All Over but the Shoutin'," a truly spectacular account of his upbringing by an adored mother (the feeling was mutual) in the rural South (Alabama, precisely). Her tough times were compounded by a husband who was in a lifelong losing struggle with alcohol. Then came "Ava's Man," about his maternal grandfather, an affectionate account of an individual and a generation. Now it's "The Prince of Frogtown," which has enough twists to keep the Bragg family story fresh and interesting even the third time out ... in particular for those who appreciated the colorful stories of the deep South that drove the first two books.

This time, there are two central characters: Bragg's father, Charles, for whom the Prince of Frogtown was a nickname in rural Alabama, and "the boy," a youngster Bragg meets through a woman he courts and marries, a young man he now claims as his own.

The father's woeful tale dominates the book. But stories of the boy -- happy, funny stories, many of them -- punctuate the awfully sad story of a man for whom the bottle might as well have been a cell, a coffin. Charles Bragg lived hard, estranged from his family -- Rick Bragg guesses his parents had maybe one good year -- and there is no happy ending here. Charles Bragg died younger than he should have (in 1975), after years of sickness and misery, lonely but cared for by a friend and it's discovered later, full of regret for the former wife he always loved and the children he never really knew.

That's something of a contrast indeed to "All Over but the Shoutin'," wherein the young journalist who improbably became a star and won his profession's top prize is able at story's end to buy his mother a paid-for house. It was a moment so beautifully recounted that a reader wanted to cheer. (Pat Conroy, a best-seller who also is something of a Southern family storyphile, sent Bragg's mother flowers when he finished the book.)

Here, Charles Bragg, after a lifetime of drinking, failure, disappointment and more drinking, comes to a nondescript end and is laid to rest in a humble way steeped in a sense of true mourning by all who knew him. There are those whose lives can be celebrated upon passing, whose funerals and visitations are occasion for some storytelling, laughter and fond recall. The elder Bragg's life wasn't one of them.

Some said Korea deepened his demons. That wouldn't have been unusual, but this was a man who worked at meager jobs and for meager wages all his life, while his wife struggled with doing chores for others, making tremendous sacrifices to bring up her three children, who showed her husband compassion, tried to understand him but knew that, ultimately, he would disappoint her.

There are some tough moments here -- the big-bellied, stereotypical Southern cop who humiliated Charles Bragg by chaining him and making him a one-man road gang; the brief, oh-so-brief, glimmers of hope that he had changed, hope that was dashed; the tortured feelings of his children toward him. His problems and their feelings were, in some parts of the South in these times (the 1950s and '60s) -- and at others, for that matter -- epidemic among some men.

So sad is the tale of Charles Bragg -- a once-dapper young man whose son describes him as looking, toward the end, like a "burned out house"-- that it might seem simply too painful to read, particularly since it echoes the previous two memoirs. Indeed, it wouldn't be fair to say Bragg is guilty of metaphorical redundancy, of borrowing from his earlier work. He's not presenting this as a brand-new story of which readers of his other two books are unaware. But it's likely some readers may feel weary of this very Southern family story by the time they're done. Ah, but there is a new element here, and though he occupies relatively few spaces between the achingly sad tales of Charles Bragg, "the boy" and his developing relationship to the author is entertaining in itself.

It takes no psychiatrist, amateur or professional, to see that Bragg, in his connection with "the boy," is trying to raise the youngster as he wishes he had been raised. He is indulgent, sensitive, responsible and just plain in love with the kid. They become compadres, these two, and Bragg clearly anticipates the joyous adventure upon which he has embarked. The boy wrecks a go-kart. The stepfather-in-courtship is careful in their shared adventures, but not that careful. He makes a joking comment about the hassle of picking the kid up from school, but he clearly loves it. And he seems to have noticed the boy's happiness at the wedding of Bragg and his mother -- dancing, smiling -- as much as anyone or anything else. Rick Bragg, who made his name covering the biggest stories for one of the world's great newspapers, with all the muscles that develop on the ego from doing that, has found his mission in life, and that is helping to raise this boy.

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