The photograph hangs in a corner of Rick Bragg's living room, a beautiful moment frozen in time and black and white. Bragg's grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, stands near a riverbank in a worn pair of overalls, holding a freshly caught three-foot-long catfish, its mouth so big it swallows his right hand. It is one of only a handful of pictures that Bragg has of his late grandfather -- another is the yellowed studio shot of Bundrum in front of a faux palm tree background that graces the cover of Bragg's new book, Ava's Man (Knopf).
"I knew my grandfather was a heroic, kind of regal figure in the eyes of his children," says Alabama native Bragg, over a lunch plate of fried chicken and red beans at Dunbar's. "But I didn't know him. He died in 1958, and I was born in 1959. I knew how important he was to his daughters, because they just never talked about him. It was too painful."
The story of his grandmother's husband is Bragg's portrait of the family patriarch. It's the most ambitious writing yet from the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, national correspondent for The New York Times and recent New Orleans transplant. Ava's Man was born out of Bragg's tribute to his mother, Margaret -- one of Bundrum's daughters -- in his heartfelt 1999 memoir, All Over But the Shoutin'. That book's tale of his mother's sacrifices for her family struck a chord with a diverse group -- Southerners, blue-collar workers, academia and "just people in Pittsburgh who love their mama," says Bragg. Since Bragg told his mother's story so lovingly and openly, readers weren't afraid to reciprocate. Bragg's curiosity was piqued by the amount of people who told him that All Over But the Shoutin' started a generation late.
"A little old lady would stop me and reach down and grab my knee, or they'd take your hand or grab your wrist, so you can't get away," he says. "Because they have something to say and they want you to hear it. They wanted to know where my mama's background and strength of character came from. And they'd answer it for me, because they knew where it came from, because they knew where theirs came from."
Bragg was already considering writing a book on the vanishing "old South," and seized the idea of evoking that era and its traditions through one person: his grandfather. He didn't know if the project was feasible, however, considering that his large family of Southern storytellers was uncharacteristically reticent with their tales of Charlie Bundrum.
"Getting them to open up and talk about him was one of the hardest things I've ever done," says Bragg. "Then all of a sudden it's like when you just turn the water on, and after a month of writing down what they told me, I knew there was something there."
The figure that emerged from the oral histories was a roofer, trapper, carpenter, fisherman, moonshiner, woodsman and fiercely protective family man. Raising seven children in the shadow of the Great Depression, Bundrum followed the ever-shifting trail of work and wages -- the family moved 21 times in one year. Bragg charts their tracks through forests of pine trees, over red-clay roads and across winding rivers. Charlie Bundrum emerges as a heroic figure, but not one without flaws. There are moments of violence (arguably justified), excessive drinking and a confrontation between Ava and Blackie Lee -- a woman who shows up at the house one day asking for Charlie. Bragg had to convince his aunts that these stories were essential, and Charlie's life couldn't play out like a highlight reel.
"They were there the night that Charlie shot the guy for pounding on the door, and they were there the night he knocked all Jerry Reardon's teeth out with a shotgun," says Bragg. "These girls were not proud of that. To keep myself from wasting three years of my life, I would read them chapters as I went, because it's not worth not being able to go by and see my aunt Gracie and Juanita. So I'd call 'em up and say, 'Listen to this,' and I'd read 'em a chapter. And they liked most of it. They wished I hadn't written the chapter about Blackie Lee. But I told them, if we whitewash him, two things are going to happen. No one will believe who he was, and no one will read the book."
Bragg builds trust and inspires belief with his deceptively simple prose, invisibly shifting gears between his spare third-person narrative style and local language.
"There are parts of it that are the Queen's English, and I hope it's grammatically correct, but then I'd slip into Ava's mindset, and remember how she had spoken," says Bragg. "Ava was a reasonably educated woman, but when we'd be kids and do something stupid like knock something over in the house, she'd say, 'Times's tough enough without y'all morons.' She said that all her life, and I can see her saying that about Charlie's drinking and drinking buddies. I thought it was more honest this way.
"I could never do the whole book in vernacular, which would have been stupid, but I simply couldn't homogenize their language. Liquor does not look anything like the way they said it. It was likker. And likker sounds like nekkid, two things that sound like something you ought not to do, but you're havin' fun doin' it."
Bragg has a way with metaphors, and they flow through the book like black pepper in white gravy. He writes of screech owls that sounded like "murder in the trees"; Charlie's fist, hard as "Augusta brick"; a gremlin that "had a face like a hatchet"; and of link sausage "as big as a banana and with skin almost as tough as what came on the original pig."
Bragg says that re-creating those vivid family memories sustained him through a rough transition in his own life. Last year he was finishing out his tenure as the Miami bureau chief of The New York Times (which included extensive Elian Gonzalez coverage), but was delayed by Florida's election controversy. Bragg was already dreaming about the house he bought in Uptown New Orleans. "I was working at a very difficult job down in Miami," he says. "So this book wasn't written sittin' lookin' out on a pretty little Southern courtyard, or sittin' in Atlanta with the pine trees swaying in the breeze. It was written in hotel rooms in Miami, and it kept me alive."
The rigors and extensive travel associated with his New York Times job keep Bragg away from home and kin more than he'd like. He acknowledges that writing Ava's Man, like All Over But the Shoutin', was a way to bridge the distance. "It's no big secret that I never really had a daddy, and I didn't have a grandfather, either," says Bragg. "So I said, I'm not going back and make myself a father, 'cause that's just too damn hard and too damn ugly. But I can make myself a grandfather, and that's a way -- much more so than the first book -- to keep a connection with a home, and keep a connection to the people I love. It's just a boy making himself a grandfather."
- 'Writing this book kept me alive.' -- Author Rick Bragg on Ava's Man, the story of his grandfather Charlie Bundrum.