Rick Bragg has written about his father before, and it has been ugly.
In two bestselling memoirs, All Over But the Shoutin' and Ava's Man, Bragg summed up his father. In his new book, he writes that he saw him as "a tragic figure, a one-dimensional villain whose fists and tongue lashed my mother when he was drunk
. . . Against his darkness her light was even brighter, as she just absorbed his cruelties until she could not take them into herself anymore, and wasted her beauty in a cotton field, picking a hundred pounds a day of a crop that was light as air."
That contrast between his angel mother and devil daddy was a dramatic device that helped make those two books into moving, vivid portraits of his Alabama family. They were scarred by generations of poverty, alcoholism and violence, but graced by fierce love and a gift for storytelling.
Bragg's third memoir, The Prince of Frogtown, takes another look at Charles Bragg, the villain of the piece. It's no apologia for his father, but it is an older, sort of wiser son's attempt to understand him.
The book opens with a lyrically beautiful evocation of Bragg's childhood, a wild Eden inhabited by a "tribe of sunburned little boys," from which Charles was usually absent: "Somewhere out there, my father drifted from ditch to ditch in a hundred-dollar car, but we were free of him then, free of him for good."
Not hardly. Although he died hard at 40 of tuberculosis and alcohol, Charles Bragg clearly still haunts his son (and the rest of his family).
What prompts Bragg to re-examine his memories of Charles? He gets a boy of his own. He writes that for most of his life his "attention span, in romance, was that of a tick on a hot rock. Then I met her, and landed with a thud on the altar at the Peabody Hotel."
His bride brings three sons to the union, two almost grown but the third a blithe, beloved 10-year-old. "He was named, this boy, for a man who wrestled an angel, but had lived a life free of contention, free of consequence." When the kid goes on car trips, he still carries a blanky.
Although they could hardly be more different, the boy and Bragg bond — which leaves the author trying to figure out how to be a father, and reflecting on what he learned from his own.
Bragg, an award-winning journalist who has written for the St. Petersburg Times (disclosure: He left the staff long before I joined it; we've met once, briefly), has had his own ups and downs. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for feature writing for the New York Times, and resigned from that newspaper in 2003 after questions were raised about his use of a stringer's research in his stories.
But he doesn't focus on that in this book. Family, past and present, takes center stage. He places his clan in historic context, tracing their roots to the Creek tribe, victims of brutal genocide at the hands of Andrew Jackson's troops, and poor Southern whites. During the Civil War, he writes, "the sharecroppers marched away to hurrahs in one of the true oddities of Southern history, to die to preserve a way of life closed to them."
By the days of Bragg's grandparents, those sharecroppers had turned to millwork, another way of life just a few steps from slavery. They had steady jobs instead of the eternal risk of farming, but the company owned their homes, the store, their families — children dropped out of grade school, or never started, to work in the mills.
In Jacksonville, Ala., where most of this book is set, the millworkers respond to the physical and emotional punishment of their jobs in predictable ways: They drink, they fight, they hurt their wives and children.
But in The Prince of Frogtown, Bragg makes his father something more than that stereotype. He doesn't just rely on his own limited memories of the man, but interviews family and many of Charles' friends.
Before a lifetime of bad luck and bad behavior breaks him down, Charles is rambunctious and imaginative. One of his oldest friends recalls flying a kite with him one day, so high it was out of sight. When another boy asked what they were doing, Charles told him, "We're fishin' for the man in the moon."
He loved fast cars and cool clothes, and he was a hopeless romantic who was instantly smitten when he met the beautiful Margaret, the author's mother.
But he also learned fighting at his father's knee and was constitutionally unable to back down from a challenge. At 17, he joined the Marines and went to Korea, an experience that only added to his psychological scars.
Bragg recounts his rapid tumble from shining boy to sometimes savage man with unflinching candor. One of the most stunning surprises in the book is the story of how his parents' marriage finally ended: Charles went straight. He laid off the drinking and fighting and held a job — but to do it he had to move himself and his family to Texas, far from a lifetime's evil habits but also far from Margaret's beloved family, too far for her to bear.
The Prince of Frogtown is a story by turns gut-wrenching, hilarious and heartbreaking. By the end, you won't love Charles Bragg, but you'll understand how he got that way. It's a cycle of violence and addiction that not all of his sons escape, but for Bragg and his stepson, the book feels a little like an exorcism, a way of looking hard at the past in order to break free of it.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.