thing for sure about the life story of New
York Times national correspondent and
Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, as he tells it
in this angry memoir: He hasn't had it easy.
All Over but the Shoutin' details a childhood
spent dirt-poor and fatherless in Alabama,
protected by a loving mother who sacrificed
everything for her children. It's the story of a
have-not, resentful of the haves, who
overcomes crushing limitations to become a
newspaper reporter and who eventually
scrambles his way into a job at what he calls
"the temple" of his profession, the New York
Times. In the end he triumphs, buying his
mother the decent house she's always wanted
-- with cash.
It's a tough story all right -- too bad that from
the first page you can hear Bragg, in the
measured spit-and-polish prose
newspapermen use when they're being
sensitive, milking it for all it's worth. The
novelist Lee Smith, and Dolly Parton (in a
number like her "Coat of Many Colors"),
understand the power of understatement when
it comes to conveying the heartbreak of
poverty, and that's what makes their work so
rich. But Bragg's litany of major bummers
reads like a bid for sympathy. It's as if he
believes that piled-on layers of hardship and
woe are likely to wrench that many more tears
out of us, as if we should be wowed by the
sheer bulk and weight of his experiences.
He recalls how his mother "scraped together
money for my high school class ring, even
though her toes poked out of her old sneakers
and she was wearing clothes from the
Salvation Army bin in the parking lot of the
A&P. It was not real gold, that ring, just some
kind of fake, shiny metal crowned with a
lump of red glass, but I was proud of it ... If
the sunlight caught it just right, it looked
almost real." In case that reference to his
mother's holey sneakers slips by you the first
time, Bragg mentions them at least twice more
during the course of the book.
What makes All Over but the Shoutin' truly
annoying, though, are Bragg's rooster-size ego
and his sanctimoniousness about his
profession. Of course, all journalists have big
egos -- it comes with the territory. And on
some level, you can't blame Bragg for being
proud that he was able to crack the stuffy
establishment that is the New York Times.
But after he's mentioned his numerous
journalism awards for the third time, and after
you've caught onto his trick of sprinkling
down-home cracker words like "ain't" amid
his crisp, crafty Times-style prose, the whole
thing starts to smell like yesterday's catfish.
Bragg tells how he got a promotion at one of
his pre-Times newspaper jobs by purposely
"overwriting" a story about a chicken that
fought off a bobcat. "The moral, I suppose,
was this: Do not, on purpose, write a bunch of
overwritten crap if it looks so much like the
overwritten crap you usually write that the
editors think you have merely reached new
heights in your craft." Bragg thinks he's
making a funny at his own expense, but by
the time you read those words, a good
two-thirds of the way through the book, you
may wonder if the joke is really on you. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
'A common condition of being poor white trash,' explains New York Times correspondent Bragg on learning he won a Pulitzer Prize last year, is that 'you are always afraid that the good things in your life are temporary, that someone can take them away.'" Having won that prize for stories about others, he tells his own here in a mixture of moving anecdotes and almost masochistic self-analysis. He brings alive his childhood of Southern poverty, his absentee father dead at 40, one brother scavenging coal for the family at nine, the other in and out of jail. Someone advised Bragg, '[T]o tell a story right you have to lean the words against each other so that they don't all fall down,' and his gift for language shines through every scene of violence and deprivation. If only he would let events speak for themselves, but all too often the tone falters and Bragg takes time out to excoriate some long-gone colleague and to pass out guilt badges. What saves this uneven, jolting narrative is his love and respect for his mother, who dragged him behind her as a toddler while she picked cotton in the fields. His ambition to buy her a house was realized last year: 'She never had a wedding ring, or a decent car, or even a set of furniture that matched. Or teeth that fit. But she had a home now... of her own.'
School Library Journal
On Palm Sunday, 1994, a tornado ripped through a church in Piedmont, AL, killing 20 people. This is Bragg's hometown, and he began his story on the tragedy for the New York Times as follows: '"This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven. This is a place where the song 'Jesus Loves Me' has rocked generations to sleep, and heaven is not a concept, but a destination.' It is writing of this quality that won the author his job as a national correspondent and the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. He grew up in poverty, the second of three sons of an alcoholic, abusive father and a loving mother. The early chapters give a beautiful description of warm and happy moments he enjoyed with her and his family even as she struggled to provide for them after they'd been abandoned. Teens will enjoy reading about the resourceful, talented, and lucky young man's career as he moved from local reporter to working for regional and national papers. -- Patricia Noonan, Prince William Public Library, VA.
Constitution Atlanta Journal
. . .[T]ells about the South with such power and bone-naked love. . .that he will make you cry.
A grand memoir...[Bragg] tells about the South with such power and bone-naked love...that he will make you cry.
A celebrated Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter turns his investigative attention to his own past: growing up poor and making his way from rural Alabama to the top of his profession. Bragg, who was born in 1959, is poetic and convincing on his family's poverty and how it chipped away at their dreams "to the point that the hopelessness show[ed] through." His father, violent and an alcoholic, figures here, as do his siblings, but this is above all a son's story of love and respect for a mother who picked cotton, cleaned houses, and took in washing and ironing, determined to secure for her children the chance at a successful life that poverty had denied her. Bragg explores the ambivalence he felt about leaving home and his growing awareness that such choices will allow him to achieve at a level he's scarcely imagined. His labors lead eventually to a job at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and then to Harvard in 1992, when he receives a Nieman Fellowship that allows him to make up in reading and coursework some of what he'd missed by having left college early. Bragg won his Pulitzer in 1996 for his human interest stories, profiles of such figures as a courageous bodega owner, defying robbers, and of the 87-year-old Mississippi washerwoman who donated her life savings to a university. He realizes a long-cherished plan when he has enough money to buy a home for his mother. Says Bragg, "you do the best you can for the people . . . you love with all the strength in your body, once you finally figure out that they are who you are, and, in many ways, all there is. Bragg, who now lives in Atlanta, has a strong voice and a sweeping style that, like his approach tonewspaper writing, is rich, empathetic, and compelling. His memoir is a model of humility combined with pride in one's accomplishments.
Read an Excerpt
He was living in a little house in Jacksonville, Alabama, a college and mill town that was the closest urban center--with its stoplights and a high school and two supermarkets--to the country roads we roamed in our raggedy cars. He lived in the mill village, in one of those houses the mills subsidized for their workers, back when companies still did things like that. It was not much of a place, but better than anything we had ever lived in as a family. I knocked and a voice like an old woman's, punctuated with a cough that sounded like it came from deep in the guts, told me to come on in, it ain't locked.
It was dark inside, but light enough to see what looked like a bundle of quilts on the corner of a sofa. Deep inside them was a ghost of a man, his hair and beard long and going dirty gray, his face pale and cut with deep grooves. I knew I was in the right house because my daddy's only real possessions, a velvet-covered board pinned with medals, sat inside a glass cabinet on a table. But this couldn't be him.
He coughed again, spit into a can and struggled to his feet, but stopped somewhere short of standing straight up, as if a stoop was all he could manage. "Hey, Cotton Top," he said, and then I knew. My daddy, who was supposed to be a still-young man, looked like the walking dead, not just old but damaged, poisoned, used up, crumpled up and thrown in a corner to die. I thought that the man I would see would be the trim, swaggering, high-toned little rooster of a man who stared back at me from the pages of my mother's photo album, the young soldier clowning around in Korea, the arrow-straight, good-looking boy who posed beside my mother back before the fields and mophandle and the rest of it took her looks. The man I remembered had always dressed nice even when there was no cornmeal left, whose black hair always shone with oil, whose chin, even when it wobbled from the beer, was always angled up, high.
I thought he would greet me with that strong voice that sounded so fine when he laughed and so evil when, slurred by a quart of corn likker, he whirled through the house and cried and shrieked, tormented by things we could not see or even imagine. I thought he would be the man and monster of my childhood. But that man was as dead as a man could be, and this was what remained, like when a snake sheds its skin and leaves a dry and brittle husk of itself hanging in the Johnson grass.
"It's all over but the shoutin' now, ain't it, boy," he said, and when he let the quilt slide from his shoulders I saw how he had wasted away, how the bones seemed to poke out of his clothes, and I could see how it killed his pride to look this way, unclean, and he looked away from me for a moment, ashamed.
He made a halfhearted try to shake my hand but had a coughing fit again that lasted a minute, coughing up his life, his lungs, and after that I did not want to touch him. I stared at the tops of my sneakers, ashamed to look at his face. He had a dark streak in his beard below his lip, and I wondered why, because he had never liked snuff. Now I know it was blood.
I remember much of what he had to say that day. When you don't see someone for eight, nine years, when you see that person's life red on their lips and know that you will never see them beyond this day, you listen close, even if what you want most of all is to run away.
"Your momma, she alright?" he said.
I said I reckon so.
"The other boys? They alright?"
I said I reckon so.
Then he was quiet for a minute, as if trying to find the words to a question to which he did not really want an answer.
"They ain't never come to see me. How come?"
I remember thinking, fool, why do you think? But I just choked down my words, and in doing so I gave up the only real chance I would ever have to accuse him, to attack him with the facts of his own sorry nature and the price it had cost us all. The opportunity hung perfectly still in the air in front of my face and fists, and I held my temper and let it float on by. I could have no more challenged him, berated him, hurt him than I could have kicked some three-legged dog. Life had kicked his ass pretty good.
I just shrugged.
For the next few hours--unless I was mistaken, having never had one before--he tried to be my father. Between coughing and long pauses when he fought for air to generate his words, he asked me if I liked school, if I had ever gotten any better at math, the one thing that just flat evaded me. He asked me if I ever got even with the boy who blacked my eye ten years ago, and nodded his head, approvingly, as I described how I followed him into the boys' bathroom and knocked his dick string up to his watch pocket, and would have dunked his head in the urinal if the aging principal, Mr. Hand, had not had to pee and caught me dragging him across the concrete floor.
He asked me about basketball and baseball, said he had heard I had a good game against Cedar Springs, and I said pretty good, but it was two years ago, anyway. He asked if I had a girlfriend and I said, "One," and he said, "Just one?" For the slimmest of seconds he almost grinned and the young, swaggering man peeked through, but disappeared again in the disease that cloaked him. He talked and talked and never said a word, at least not the words I wanted.
He never said he was sorry.
He never said he wished things had turned out different.
He never acted like he did anything wrong.
Part of it, I know, was culture. Men did not talk about their feelings in his hard world. I did not expect, even for a second, that he would bare his soul. All I wanted was a simple acknowledgment that he was wrong, or least too drunk to notice that he left his pretty wife and sons alone again and again, with no food, no money, no way to get any, short of begging, because when she tried to find work he yelled, screamed, refused. No, I didn't expect much.
After a while he motioned for me to follow him into a back room where he had my present, and I planned to take it and run. He handed me a long, thin box, and inside was a brand-new, well-oiled Remington .22 rifle. He said he had bought it some time back, just kept forgetting to give it to me. It was a fine gun, and for a moment we were just like anybody else in the culture of that place, where a father's gift of a gun to his son is a rite. He said, with absolute seriousness, not to shoot my brothers.
I thanked him and made to leave, but he stopped me with a hand on my arm and said wait, that ain't all, that he had some other things for me. He motioned to three big cardboard egg cartons stacked against one wall.
Inside was the only treasure I truly have ever known.
I had grown up in a house in which there were only two books, the King James Bible and the spring seed catalog. But here, in these boxes, were dozens of hardback copies of everything from Mark Twain to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There was a water-damaged Faulkner, and the nearly complete set of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan. There was poetry and trash, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, and a paperback with two naked women on the cover. There was a tiny, old copy of Arabian Nights, threadbare Hardy Boys, and one Hemingway. He had bought most of them at a yard sale, by the box or pound, and some at a flea market. He did not even know what he was giving me, did not recognize most of the writers. "Your momma said you still liked to read," he said.
There was Shakespeare. My father did not know who he was, exactly, but he had heard the name. He wanted them because they were pretty, because they were wrapped in fake leather, because they looked like rich folks' books. I do not love Shakespeare, but I still have those books. I would not trade them for a gold monkey.
"They's maybe some dirty books in there, by mistake, but I know you ain't interested in them, so just throw 'em away," he said. "Or at least, throw 'em away before your momma sees 'em." And then I swear to God he winked.
I guess my heart should have broken then, and maybe it did, a little. I guess I should have done something, anything, besides mumble "Thank you, Daddy." I guess that would have been fine, would not have betrayed in some way my mother, my brothers, myself. But I just stood there, trapped somewhere between my long-standing, comfortable hatred, and what might have been forgiveness. I am trapped there still.
He could not buy my friendship, not with a library, but with the books he bought my company for as long as he wanted it that day. We went back in the living room and he unscrewed the cap on a thin pint of what I believe was George Dickel or some other brown likker. He drank it in little sips, and talked about how pretty my momma was when they were married, about a time when we all went to Texas for a summer so he could work a body and fender job, about the bulldogs he used to fight in the pits over in Rome, Georgia, about the mean woman he used to court over that way who kept a razor tucked down the neck of her blouse. He talked of a hound dog he had that could climb a tree, of the time a rattlesnake bit Boots, his momma's fat Chihuahua, and how she swelled up like a beach ball. I had heard them all before, or thought I had, when I was a child, but I cannot say it was a bad thing to hear them again.
I asked him once or twice to tell me about Korea, because I was a boy and boys are thrilled with war. But he just said nawwwwww, he didn't like to dwell on it, that I should thank the Lord I never had to go.
Finally the bottle was down to a swallow or two and he was huddled back in a corner of the couch, quiet, as satisfyingly, numbingly drunk as a man in his condition could be. The whiskey was like tonic to him, I guess. It warmed instead of burned. I just sat in a chair all the way across the room, waiting. I had experience with drunks, with him as a child, and later with kinfolks who staggered into our house for a place to sleep. I knew it was just a matter of time until he slipped into that deep, deep sleep that no amount of shaking or even a house fire would wake him from. I would take my gun, my books, and leave him forever.
Then, without any explanation of why he changed his mind and without any pretense that by talking about this war he could somehow excuse the way he lived, he told me one last story. He used his aged, ruined voice like an old man's palsied hands to pick the lock on his past, and tugged me inside.