There's just something about Southerners. "When they start telling a story, they roll with it," says Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, who has told a story or two himself. "Their sense of timing, drama, irony is just beautiful. They can tell you a story and you'll be laughing so hard you'll have to lie down on the carpet. It's the same way with the sad stories, and the language is just prettier."
The happiness, the pain, the rich language and the soul of the South are alive in Bragg's new book, Ava's Man, a profile of the author's maternal grandfather. It's the natural follow-up to All Over but the Shoutin', Bragg's best-selling memoir of growing up poor in the Alabama hills, the son of an alcoholic father and a mother determined to provide for her kids. Many readers of Shoutin' wanted to know how Bragg's mother, Margaret, acquired her indomitable spirit. For Bragg, the answer was clear: Margaret's spunk came from her father, Charlie Bundrum. But Bragg had one problem writing a book about this fascinating man -- he never knew his grandfather. "He died in the spring of 1958, one year before I was born," the author writes. "I have never forgiven him for that."
Without Charlie to interview, Bragg mined his own family for the stories he tells in Ava's Man. "We kind of built him up from dirt level," says the author, speaking from his home in New Orleans. "Physical description, personality, foibles and outright flaws, we put 'em all in there -- much to my Aunt Gracie Juanita's chagrin." Charlie as Bragg portrays him wasn't perfect, just real -- a moonshine-drinking, raw-boned man with big ears and a bigger heart.
As a New York Times reporter, Bragg interviews people for a living. However, in his research for Ava's Man, he found that interviewing strangers is one thing; interviewing his own family was another story.
"It was nerve-wracking," he says. "These are your people. You don't want to say anything that will cause them pain." He also discovered a downside to the Southern art of storytelling. "They'd get right to the good part" of a recollection about Charlie and a dog, "and then one of them would say, 'You know I had a dog like that.' The story will take a hard right turn and that turn will branch off like a roadmap. It can take three or four hours to steer your mom back to where they started. There were stories they started I still don't know the end to."
But over time and over tales, Charlie came alive for the author, who recognizes much of his grandfather in himself, for good or for bad. "Charlie loved more than anything else on earth the curves in living," says Bragg. "He didn't want a long straightaway, he loved the unexpected, and I do, too. That's why I do what I do for a living. He had a terrible temper and mine is . . . I wouldn't say legendary but it's pretty damn well known. He wanted to tell you a story, and I sure do love to tell one. I hope when I open my mouth, a little bit of him pours out."
Though the two share storytelling skills, Bragg differs from Charlie in other ways. Charlie was a skilled carpenter; Bragg's brothers have been known to laugh when he picks up a hammer. And though Bragg is proud he doesn't own a suit, he has never had to endure hardship like Charlie, who kept his family going through the Depression.
A devoted father who loved his seven children, Charlie "did the things you have to do to keep them. He worked himself to the bone to give them everything he could. I'll take risks. He took responsibilities." It is a choice that Bragg, single and childless at 41, may never face himself.
In writing Ava's Man, Bragg preserves not only his grandfather, but the Southern storytelling tradition that pieced Charlie together for him. "You can't assume storytelling stops at the county line, but I believe we have a richer tradition of storytelling," says Bragg. "It's deeper and wider. You can't walk down the street without hearing a good story."
That, he worries, may change. Popular culture and gentrification are robbing the South of all that makes it unique. "The deep South, the South I really know, is just as endangered as the rain forest. Accents become more bland, country music used to be Merle Haggard who'd gone to prison, Johnny Cash, who had a dark soul. Now these singers wear hip hop clothes and Versace. Faith Hill and Shania Twain are beautiful but about as country as Siegfried and Roy."
If All Over but the Shoutin' and Ava's Man have made Bragg the poster boy of Southern storytelling, he enjoys using his reporting skills to show the world how the South really is. "People assume racism has some particular claim down here. I've lived all over the country, and there's no line of demarcation. Some of the most miserably racist places I've been have had nothing to do with the South," says Bragg, who then waxes eloquent about grits.
He wrote most of Ava's Man quickly, passionately. He stopped cold as he approached the ending, where Charlie dies. "I couldn't kill him. I tried and I tried. I'd call my mother or her sisters, [and say] 'Tell me something that can help me through this.' But I just didn't want to kill him," says Bragg. When he was able at last to reach the end, "I felt a sense of loss I've never had. I'm a reasonably tough man. I've been shot at and beat up, but this was awful."
To compensate, Bragg added "my favorite thing I've ever written in my life, about if he had lived five or six more years. I would have known everything. He would have taken me fishing, bought me candy. I'd have known what he looked like, what he sounded like, his mannerisms, how he stood."
He would have been able to ask Charlie the question that's been bothering him. "I want to know what he was afraid of. He did not seem to be afraid of anything," says Bragg. "But I don't think he would have answered me. I think he would have slapped me on the knee or back and would have started telling a story."
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.
Author photo by Marion Ettlinger.