Pulitzer Prize–winner Bragg returns to the rural Alabama home turf of Ava’s Man (2001) and All Over But the Shoutin’ (1997) with a double narrative that braids two emotional journeys.
A recent marriage and the baggage that came with it—a ten-year-old stepson who still carried around his “blanky”—led the author to revisit the story of his father Charlie, whom he had previously depicted as an improvident, violent drunk who blighted the lives of Bragg’s mother and two brothers. Here, extensive interviews with friends and relatives of the “Prince of Frogtown” (the neighborhood where Charlie and his brothers lived and battled in the streets) have produced a more dynamic, if not necessarily nobler portrait. In youth, Charlie drag-raced, swept away his best friend’s girl and even stole the keys to the county jail. That was before combat in the Korean War, repeated run-ins with the local sheriff, an increasing taste for alcohol and a TB diagnosis. With considerable discernment, the author traces how his family was formed by a blue-collar town and its hardscrabble past, marked by Indian wars and the Civil War. His native area’s cadences, smooth and rich as bourbon, seep naturally into Bragg’s prose: Paternal grandfather Bob “never met a man he wouldn’t fight at least twice, if insulted, and he intended to slap all the pretty off Handsome Bill Lively’s face.” Alternating chapters on his unnamed stepson, by contrast, resound more with the annoyance Bragg feels at the start than the love he professes at the end, at which point the author sounds uncomfortably self-congratulatory about the maturation of his stepson, now “the man I rushed him to be.”
A mixed bag, redeemed by the author’s portrait of his father, rendered with rawboned honesty and heartache.