Books
2:22 pm
Mon March 9, 2009

The Adventures of Douglas Bragg: A Novel, by Madison Jones

Jones' hero is young Douglas Bragg, who is 24 years old, has graduated from college, lives in Birmingham, Alabama in 1960 and has itchy feet. He will go out to see the world, heading north, hitchhiking.

Madison Jones was born in 1925, grew up in Tennessee and graduated from Vanderbilt and then took an MA from the University of Florida and, after decades of teaching creative writing, retired from Auburn University in 1987. Jones is the author of ten previous works of fiction, mainly novels, and it would be understandable if at age 84 , he put the dust cover on his typewriter.

But, not only has Jones written another novel, The Adventures of Douglas Bragg, he has astonishingly, written a young man's novel.

The typical, the traditional, career for a fiction writer is to begin with short stories, move toward a volume of interconnected stories and then, before mastering the unified, Henry Jamesian form, perhaps an episodic, picaresque, novel. The picaresque form, the most famous example of which in American literature is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a series of incidents that occur to the young hero as he moves along on a journey. Huck is, of course, floating down the Mississippi on a raft. The picaresque hero is an essentially good person, but, because he is traditionally poor and without power or friends, or really any resources, he needs to be wily and ethically flexible, in order to get himself out of each scrape he gets into. He is resourceful, cunning, but often, because of his youth, na?ve. It is a tradition that the picaresque hero reports honestly, insofar as he understands what he is seeing and hearing.

Jones' hero is young Douglas Bragg, who is 24 years old, has graduated from college, lives in Birmingham, Alabama in 1960 and has itchy feet. He will go out to see the world, heading north, hitchhiking.

The first chapter in this novel is the best. Bragg is picked up by a travelling salesman, Roland Belt, a handsome ex-college football player with a bad knee. Roland sells Endurol, a health tonic, and not only believes in his product, he sips at it constantly. This is unfortunate since it is very alcoholic. Roland is a complete momma's boy and drives carefully, as he has been instructed. That is, he drives 55 all the time, up hill or down, on straightaways and curves, no matter how hairpin, for 55 is the safe speed. Roland, drunk, sideswipes a police car, but Bragg ends up in jail, as picaresque heroes often do.

Now Bragg must rescue himself, which he humorously does, and continue on his journey. Other adventures lie ahead.

In the course of the novel, young Bragg will find himself more or less a slave on a pig farm, ensconced in the mansion of an over-the-hill Nashville singing star, working for a strange and crooked mortician, and trapped, in a kind of semiofficial halfway house, in the power of a slightly crazed evangelical preacher.

Each time he will learn a little something, figure out a way out and move on.

Needless to say, some episodes are more comic than others. In fact, by the last chapter, Jones, who accurately thinks of himself as a literary moralist in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, has gone back to his earliest concerns, the eternal battle between good and evil in this world. The episode with the preacher is hardly funny at all. Douglas at first thinks the preacher to be a wife beater and a hypocrite, but things may not be as they seem. A character with green eyes appears. This is Jones' sign of the devil, the real Satan moving around in our real world, as he had appeared in Jones' Passage Through Gehenna.

Still, most of the episodes are diverting and it is certainly surprising and pleasing to see the writer who created nearly perfect tragedy in his civil rights era masterpiece, A Cry of Absence, try something as mostly light-hearted as this road trip adventure story.

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