Books
11:16 am
Wed May 14, 2008

The Prince of Frogtown

And in terms of empathy, maybe I am not the best reviewer for this volume. Bragg's people are, emphatically, not my people. But then again, maybe I am the right one to review this volume, because Bragg makes these people come alive for me, and in fact through some of the most beautiful writing you will find anywhere, makes me care about them, feel for them as individuals.

The Prince of Frogtown will complete the Bragg saga. Added to All Over But the Shoutin' (1997) and Ava's Man (2001), we have what we might call Bragg's Calhoun County trilogy.

Where Ava's Man is a biography of the maternal grandfather Bragg never met, the hard-fighting but honorable roofer and whiskey maker Charlie Bundren, and All Over But the Shoutin' is a memoir extolling the courage, sacrifice, and beauty of Bragg's own mother, The Prince of Frogtown is the story, recaptured through years of extensive, exhaustive, and obviously painful interviews with family and friends, of the father Bragg hardly knew. In Shoutin' Bragg dismissed his father: "a tragic figure, a one-dimensional villain whose fists and tongue lashed my mother when he was drunk, who drove us away for months and years only to reclaim us again when it crossed his mind."

Bragg realizes over time, as we all do, that life, our decisions and the forces that shape us, are more complicated, more tangled than can ever be explained and that we each have only one father, and to deny or dismiss him is to diminish ourselves. Bragg sets out to find as much as he can about his dad and why he was the way he was.

What he finds out is, of course, a combination of bad luck and bad judgment. Charles Bragg's father, Bob, was a drunk, as were his brothers, Troy and Roy. Violence was an everyday occurrence, and sparked by almost anything, it seems, but most often by a kind of pride. Bragg rightly admires Wayne Flynt's study of Alabama yeomen, Poor But Proud. It seems to me Bragg's people were indisputably poor and pathologically proud. Working at the killing mill, lungs full of dust, heads covered in lint, losing fingers and limbs to the machines, in company houses, shopping at the company store, abused by rapacious, heartless capitalism and an essentially feudal law enforcement system, they were at the bottom but would fight to the death if they felt anyone looked down on them. There seems to be no miserable situation the poor whites could not make worse, through drink or violence.

One part of this mill village in Jacksonville, Alabama, was called Frogtown. Bragg's father was a handsome, cocky boy filled with energy and guts, afraid of nothing. He was the prince of Frogtown. Where did it go wrong?

In the Marines in Korea, he had to kill an enemy soldier with his bare hands by drowning him. Was that it? After the war, he had a wreck with painful injuries and fractures to his chest and ribs and self-medicated with drink for months afterwards. Was that it? But Charles quit school in the sixth grade, went AWOL from the Marines, for no good reason, and once escaped from the county jail with only a few weeks to serve. Why? Spite? Because he could? Charles Bragg is a case study in self-destruction.

Bragg, who has never had biological children, married a few years ago and "inherited" a ten-year-old stepson. Prince is arranged around interchapters, anecdotes about Rick Bragg's learning to be a father himself. This adds a needed dimension to the book, because as every parent knows, we begin to understand our parents better after we have children. That kind of empathy and identification cannot be learned from books or observation, but only one day at a time.

And in terms of empathy, maybe I am not the best reviewer for this volume. Bragg's people are, emphatically, not my people. But then again, maybe I am the right one to review this volume, because Bragg makes these people come alive for me, and in fact through some of the most beautiful writing you will find anywhere, makes me care about them, feel for them as individuals.

Rick's daddy may have been the prince of Frogtown, but Bragg himself is a prince of the English language.

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