Rick Bragg is the kind of writer who makes other writers jealous. The man can turn a phrase like none other, and his stories about his family — including the bestselling “All Over But the Shoutin’ ” and “Ava’s Man” — have earned him a place among the American South’s literary elite.
Bragg’s latest, “My Southern Journey: True Stories From the Heart of the South,” will take readers down a familiar dirt road into the author’s memories.
However, “My Southern Journey” is a collection of essays, mostly selected from works already published in magazines such as GQ, Southern Living and Bon Appetit. The essays are separated into five themed parts: Home, Table, Place, Craft and Spirit. Most of the essays are just two or three pages long, and brilliantly showcase Bragg’s ability to write in short form.
I may be in the minority, but I’m actually partial to Bragg’s writing in essay form, rather than the memoirs for which he’s best known. Bragg’s words come together to form sentences so sumptuous and rich, I prefer them packaged in short bon mots that whet my appetite for more. Before “My Southern Journey,” my favorite Bragg book was “Somebody Told Me,” a collection of his best newspaper stories.
“My Southern Journey” is in turns hilarious, poignant and bittersweet. Bragg’s affection for the South is real — in fact, one might go further than calling it affection. It seems to be true love. In a few essays, he briefly writes about his time living up north; while he seems happy with those memories, he also seems happy for them to be just memories.
In the book’s introduction — really, on the book’s first real page — one of Bragg’s best passages neatly sums up some vital differences between the North and the South: “I wonder if, north of here, they might even run out of stories someday. It may seem silly, but it is cold up there, too cold to mosey, to piddle, to loafer, and summer only lasts a week and a half. The people spit the words out so fast when they talk, like they are trying to discard them somehow, banish them, rather than relish the sound and the story. We will not run out of them here. We talk like we are tasting something.”
Even though Bragg’s sentences are written and not spoken, they still almost drip off the page, like sweet Southern honey. Those sentences make up essays to be savored, to be read a few at a time and enjoyed to the fullest of the reader’s ability. This is not a book to be devoured in a day. Read correctly, this book should take at least a week to finish — preferably in warm spots in the sun, with a favorite beverage close by and a journal at hand to jot down favorite quotes.
Anyone can read and enjoy this book. But if you’re from the South, if you love the South, then this book will remind you of why the South is home and will never leave you, even if you leave it.
WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK: Locally, “My Southern Journey” can be purchased at Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor, Church Street Coffee and Books, Jim Reed Books, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million.
About the Author
It has always had my heart in a box.
In the clip-joint souvenir shops in the gaudiest blocks of the Quarter, with canned Cajun music drilling rock-concert-loud into my ears, I could never resist opening the toy wooden coffins to see what was inside. I knew it would be just a cut-rate voodoo doll -- a wad of rags, cheap plastic beads and blind, button eyes. But every time, it made me smile. What a place, what a city, that can make you laugh at coffins and believe in magic -- all the way to the cash register.
What a place, where old women sit beside you on outbound planes complaining about their diabetes while eating caramel-covered popcorn a fistful at a time. "It's hard, so hard, sweet baby," they will say of their disease, then go home and slick an iron skillet with bacon grease, because what good is there in a life without hot cornbread?
What a place, where in the poorest cemeteries the poorest men and women build tin-foil monuments to lost children in a potter's field, while just a few blocks over, the better-off lay out oyster po' boys and cold root beer and dine in the shade of the family crypt, doing lunch with their ancestors and the cement angels in cities of the dead.
What a place, so at ease here at the elbow of death, where I once marched and was almost compelled to dance in a jazz funeral for a street-corner conjurer named Chicken Man, who was carried to his resting place by a hot-stepping brass band and a procession of mourners who drank long-neck beers and laughed out loud as his hearse rolled past doorways filled with men and women who clapped in time.
Now, for those of us who borrowed that spirit and used that love and then moved away, these past few awful days have seemed like a hospital death watch -- and, in fact, for so many people it has been. And we stare deep into the television screen, at the water that had always seemed like just one more witch, one more story to scare ourselves into a warmer, deeper sleep, and we wonder if there is just too much water and too much death this time.
Ever since I was barely in my twenties, I have loved the way some men love women, if that means unreasonably. I fell in love with the city and a Louisiana State University sophomore on the same night, eating shrimp cooked seven ways in the Quarter, riding the ferry across the black, black river where fireworks burned the air at Algiers Point. I drank so much rum I could sleep standing up against a wall. The sophomore left me, smiling, but the city never did.
There is no way to explain to someone who has never lived here why every day seemed like parole. Every time I would swing my legs from under the quilt and ease my toes onto the pine floors of my shotgun double, I would think, I am getting away with something here.
How long now before the streetcar rattles down St. Charles Avenue and beads swing into the 200-year-old trees? How long before Dunbar's puts the chicken and stewed cabbage on the stove, or the overworked ladies at Domilisie's dress a po' boy on Annunciation Street, or the midday drinkers find their way back to Frankie and Johnny's on Arabella Street? Does my old house still stand on Joseph? It was high, high ground, on the lip of the bowl, and you could hit the Mississippi River with a silver dollar if you threw it twice.
I cannot stand the idea that it is broken, unfixable. I look at the men using axes to hack their way into 100-year-old houses to save people trapped there by the suffocating water. I know there is life and death to be fought out for a long, long time. But I can't help but wonder what will come, later.
My wife, as wives do, voiced what most of us are afraid to say.
"I'm glad you took me there," she said. "Before."
We went there on our honeymoon.
Just a few weeks ago, I spent a week there, walking along Magazine, walking the Quarter, not minding the heat because that is what the devil sends, heat and water, to make you appreciate the smell of crushed cherries and whiskey on the balcony at the Columns Hotel, to make you savor the barbecued shrimp, to make you hear, really hear, the sound of a 12-year-old boy blowing his own heart out into a battered trumpet by a ragged cardboard box full of pocket change.
How long, before that city reforms. Some people say it never will.
But I have seen these people dance, laughing, to the edge of a grave.
I believe that, now, they will dance back from it.
Rick Bragg is an author and journalist.