Classification: memoir, non-fiction
He writes more gorgeous sentences per capita than any writer I’ve ever read. For a while, after you finish one of his stories, most other writing seems flat and uninteresting (yes, even the good stuff.) Without having a college education, he became a long-time reporter for The New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize (and more than 50 other writing awards), received a Nieman fellowship to Havard, and is now a professor at the University of Alabama.
His name is Rick Bragg, and words turn to pure magic in his hands, that’s all.
In 1999, after many successful years as a newspaper journalist, Bragg started publishing memoirs, mostly about his own rural Southern family – and the critics went nuts. Several things converge in these stories: he is deeply passionate about these people; his family tree is chock-full of the most colorful characters imaginable; and Rick Bragg is simply one of the best writers and storytellers alive.
After I read the first chapter of All Over but the Shoutin, I set the book in my lap, looked off into the distance, and thought to myself, “You have got to be kidding.” You know how great writers can sometimes craft sentences that are so beautiful, they seem to reach out of the page and shake you? And you stop and read those sentences a few times over, just for the joy of it? With Bragg, every single page is peppered with those kinds of sentences.
It’s no good trying to articulate what he does. So I’ll give you some of his own words. (This is the very end of the prologue to All Over but the Shoutin, a book that is sort of a love letter to his mother):
No, this is not an important book. The people who know about books call it a memoir, but that is much too fancy a word for me, for her, for him. It is only a story of a handful of lives, in which one tall, blond woman, her back forever bent by the pull of that sack, comes off looking good and noble, and a dead man gets to answer for himself from deep in the ground. In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones. It is still a damn hard thing to do, when you think about it.
God help me, Momma, if I am clumsy.
Incidentally, I met Rick Bragg at the public library in Salem, Oregon, on a rainy evening in early 2006 when I was very pregnant with my first child. My brother and I sat in a medium-sized lecture hall and watched as a woman from the library escorted Bragg to the podium. He was taller than I’d expected, a brick of a man with floppy hair and a heavy leather jacket that he never took off. He seemed guarded, as famous people are.
Like many great wordsmiths, he was not overly eloquent in person – or maybe he was just tired. He gripped the podium with one hand and talked a bit about writing his previous books, and about his upcoming one (The Prince of Frogtown, which I am reading now.) After answering a few audience questions, he went into the hallway and sat at a folding table to sign books.
My brother bought a book and we stood in line. When we reached Bragg, I was too shy to say anything more than “Hi.” But my brother bent over the table, gestured to me and said, “My sister, here, told me that you are America’s greatest living writer.” (It’s true. I had said that.) Bragg looked at me and his mouth turned up a bit at one corner and he joked, “Well, then, I’ll have to put your baby through college.” He scribbled his signature and we said goodbye and walked down the hall and out the door.
Sometimes I wish I could go back in time, to redeem that moment by saying something more than “Hi.” But how do you convey to someone, in thirty seconds, what a monstrous talent they have; and what’s the point? Surely they know it. Surely, when you reach a certain level of success, all strangers look like fawning sycophants.
If I had a do-over, though, I think I would tell him that his writing is beyond beautiful, and that reading it is a pleasure and a privilege. (And maybe, if I was bold, I would also ask him if those unearthly sentences flow out of him easily, or if he has to wrestle the words onto the page. But then, what if he didn’t give the answer I’d prefer?)
Do yourself a favor. Read his family trilogy, starting with All Over but the Shoutin or, if you prefer, Ava’s Man (a book about Bragg’s maternal grandfather.) Finish up with The Prince of Frogtown.
It’ll be some of the best few hours you will ever spend reading.