This book reminds me of the wilted dandelions my son used to gather and bring to me in springtime–not the dandelions themselves but the look on his face, beaming with pride and ardor. Rick Bragg has never lost that feeling about his momma. He brought her all his winnings–first the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, then a new house in the country, and then this book. His momma must be proud.
Rick Bragg had a tough childhood, growing up poor and with an abusive, mostly absent, father who died young. His mother’s life was no cakewalk either. So Rick set out to wrassle some beauty and joy out of the pain and humiliation of growing up in the foothills of the Appalachians in Alabama. He takes his readers on a big ride, leaves them begging for more, creating a thirst he later slakes by writing two more memoirs.
The Kalamazoo Public Library chose this book and those two later memoirs, Ava’s Man, and The Prince of Frog Town. for their Reading Together series (see pictures of Bragg here) this year. I love the fact that a city of 70,000 and a county of 256,000 supports readers and writers in this annual series. The auditorium of Kalamazoo Central High School holds 800 people. About 750 of those seats were full last Tuesday night after people streamed in from miles around to hear the author speak.
I used my 30 seconds with the author at the back of the room to ask what he thinks of memoir as a genre (after writing three of these, he will next try a novel). He had a quick reply, “It all depends on the writing.” He explained, “You can have a great story, and if you don’t tell it well, the story doesn’t matter. You can take an ordinary life and make it sing. You got to write the hell out of it. Tell it with drama, color, and detail.”
I would love to take a writing class with Rick Bragg (he teaches writing at the University of Alabama now, having left the New York Times reporting job in 2003). But reading his books carefully might be just as good as sitting in his classroom.
Here are a few things I noticed about Shoutin’. The book is divided into three sections: The Widow’s Mite, Lies to My Mother, and Getting Even With Life. The few photos become mesmerizing as we get to know the the mother and her three sons. The story consists of many vignettes, often only a few pages, which could stand on their own. Each has a beginning, middle, and end.
Bragg wants to brag about his people, his foothills, his culture. With a kind of barbaric yawp he celebrates the likker-makin’, likker-drinkin’ men of the old South, never romanticizing them and, in fact, when it comes to his father, he shows the cruelty that results from the lethal combination of war and moonshine.
This is memoir the way a journalist writes it–and Bragg’s kind of journalism is the best there is. Gritty, detailed, and full of last-sentence zinger punchlines and also full of country-flavored metaphor and analogies between the people, the foothill topography, and the birds and animals that inhabit the same territory. The preface, for example, begins this way: “I used to stand amazed and watch the redbirds fight. They would flash and flutter like scraps of burning rags through a sky unbelievably blue, swirling, soaring plummeting. On the ground they were a blur of feathers, stabbing for each other’s eyes.” Bragg recited those lines by memory when he spoke in Kalamazoo last Tuesday night, explaining that redbirds are Cardinals in our northern jargon, and teaching by example how to love the way words dart and hover and suggest more than they can literally mean.
When he signed the copy of my book, he noticed how many underlinings I had made in the text. I told him I read with a pen. Here are a few more of my favorite lines:
About himself while a young reporter without academic credentials working at the Anniston Star: “I did not even try not to be bitter. I had long talks with the sage senior editor, Cody Hall, who made it plain that I should be proud of who I was. ‘Life is too short to dance with an ugly woman,’ and my ugly woman was my own envy.”
“All I knew how to do was tell stories on paper, and didn’t even have one dollop of what one respected editor, Basil Penny, called ‘jelly.’ Basil explained ‘jelly’ as a concoction of a lot of things, but the main ingredient was pretension. Me and him, we were just plain biscuit.”
These two sentence go straight to the heart of the subtext of this memoir. Underneath the focus on momma’s sacrifice and the American Dream story of rags to (relative) riches, a fight is going on inside the soul of the author. The impulse is revenge, and this man hails from a long line of what he himself described as “haters.” Every snub encountered along the way, every subtle condescension from the “trust-fund babies” he worked with in New York and in various newspapers along the way, these he would avenge by winning prizes and writing bestsellers. Not only could his momma now hold her head up, but he could rub the faces of his rivals in some good ole red Alabama dirt.
Fortunately, the better angels of his nature have a voice also. He acknowledges some Yankee journalists with long pedigrees genuinely wanted to understand and help the southerners and blue collar workers. But most importantly, he sees through his own desire for revenge. His brilliant solution to this problem of tone is to make the envy itself part of the story. The cheap shot would have been to make all Yankees fools and all college graduates snobs–and coincidentally to cut out more than half of the book-buying public. By showing us enough of his own self-doubt, judgment, insecurity, he makes us root for him to learn and grow. I cheered more for him when he acknowledged envy and fear than when he won the Pulitzer.
He reminded me, in these moments of another Southerner, William Faulkner, who did not want to go to Stockholm, Sweden, in 1950 to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature, but nevertheless gave one of the most memorable addresses in the history of the prize. His entire speech is recorded here, but these words, especially, might have been written for Rick Bragg: “the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing.”
Shoutin’ is full of the human heart in conflict with itself–with all we know of heaven and all we need of hell, to borrow also from Emily Dickinson.
Quite simply, Rick Bragg wrote the hell out of it.