The South, Rick Bragg admits, is problematic, even for a man who loves it:
“As a young man I left it, left it for a good while, then came home to stay, to get old in the thick air and descend, in time, into my ancestral soil. I have found my South just as troubled and imperfect as ever. If anything, the mosquitoes and nitwits are winning.”
Bragg hightailed it out of his native Alabama for several decades. He was a reporter for, among other publications, the then-St. Petersburg Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the New York Times. Since 1999 he has published eight books, most of them about the South in one way or another, and all of them fine examples of the art of Southern storytelling.
His ninth, Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South, is a collection of short pieces, most of them columns written in the past five years for Southern Living and Garden & Gun. It reads as if designed for our current short-attention-span state, many of the pieces just a couple of pages long, each of them offering a dose of humor or nostalgia or adventure or, quite often, descriptions of food that make you feel you can’t live another minute without a plate of fried chicken.
As Bragg writes in the prologue, these stories are “of the South’s gentler, easier nature. It is a litany of great talkers, blue-green waters, deep casseroles, kitchen-sink permanents, lying fishermen, haunted mansions, and dogs that never die, things that make this place more than a dotted line on a map or a long-ago failed rebellion.”
Many of the pieces are funny, like “You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere,” about Bragg’s attempt to fly to Hawaii for a speaking engagement: “You do not actually fly out of Birmingham. You just drive there so someone can tell you why you can’t.”
“The Abominable Biscuit” is a rant about hotel breakfast buffets, shaped by Bragg’s many book-tour treks and, he admits, aging. “I used to go in the drugstore and buy a Hershey’s bar and a yo-yo. Now I go in the drugstore and buy drugs.”
In “Free Spirits,” he notes that traveling through the South means that historic hotels tend to welcome guests with their own ghost story. Bragg wonders, though, “why is it always rich folks' residences that are haunted? ... Savannah alone has three hundred ghosts who are, at this moment, standing on a spiral staircase. Who ever heard of a haunted carport?"
Several pieces recall his days in Florida, including “Old Florida Found,” in which he describes — no kidding — watching snow fall on the beach on Anna Maria Island. Others look at beloved artifacts of Southern culture, like the metamorphosis of pickup trucks in “The Chariots of My People” and the importance of “the Wedgwood of the South” in “My Affair With Tupperware.”
Although most of the people Bragg writes about are not famous, he does recount the time he spent with Jerry Lee Lewis. When his agent asked if he was interested in writing a biography of the original rock 'n’ roll wild man, Bragg writes, “A cautious man, a deliberate man, would have carefully considered this, and gone and hid under the bed.”
Instead he finds himself in Lewis' bullet-riddled bedroom, looking at the iconic photo taken at Sun Studio in 1956 of Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins early in their careers. Lewis says, “If you’d asked one of us, asked anybody, ‘Who’s gonna be the first of all of us to die?' the answer would’ve been, ‘It’s gonna be Jerry Lee Lewis.'” As of this writing, Lewis had just celebrated his 85th birthday.
And, as always, Bragg writes about his mother, Margaret. He’s written two books about her, the bestselling All Over But the Shoutin' and The Best Cook in the World.
He didn’t just come home to Alabama, he moved into her house. Unlike his friends who comment on the strangeness of becoming their parents' caretakers, he writes that at Margaret’s house, "There is no role reversal, because that would require me to be mature and responsible.
“Instead, everyone here is running with scissors.”
In “Why Momma Loves Me Anyway,” he writes about the difficulty of buying her a birthday gift. “I got her a classic, two-tone blue 1956 Chevrolet. She used it as a greenhouse. I got her a house. It had too many lightbulbs. I got her another. The driveway is too steep.”
Despairing, he tries to make a list of things he knows she likes. Unable to acquire “TV preachers who preach the Full Gospel and have excellent piano players" or a mariachi band, he writes, ”I decided to give her money. I heard she spent it on snuff and coffee."
Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South
By Rick Bragg
Knopf, 237 pages, $26.95
Times Virtual Festival of Reading
Rick Bragg will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Virtual Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Bragg, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to firstname.lastname@example.org.