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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
Boston Boy (1986), his first memoir, told how Hentoff came to be the person he is. This volume tells how Hentoff came to the opinions he holds, which have made him one of American journalism's most passionate defenders of free speech and one of its most controversial opponents of abortion. Despite the book's billing, it's not much of a memoir. It comes off much better as a collection of essays that, for the most part, are as provocative and interesting as Hentoff's columns. He does not hold opinions lightly, nor does he shade his views to suit his audience or to curry favor. This assurance sometimes slips into self- righteousness—especially in the lengthy sections describing his views on abortion. Nor does Hentoff always come across, even in a book in which he gets to write what he wants about himself, as the nicest or most open-minded of men. But even at his hectoring, curmudgeonly worst, Hentoff tenders writing that is refreshing for its clarity of thought and voice. He credits his style to such journalist mentors as I.F. Stone and George Seldes, but even more to his first and abiding heroes, jazz musicians, "those embodiments of free expression." There are some inside stories here about life at the Voice and the New Yorker, where he was a long-time reporter, but was "retired" by its current editor, Tina Brown. And there are a couple of chapters about his wives and children, wedged in among the opinions.
But it's opinions that command center stage here, with life as little more than the stage set. Perhaps Hentoff understood that, as interesting as his life may have been, the world needs ideas expressed clearly more than it needs another memoir.