Bragg's 'Man' -- the preacher cried

September 02, 2001|By Ken Fuson | By Ken Fuson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ava's Man, by Rick Bragg. Alfred A. Knopf. 259 pages. $25.

Rick Bragg has done the impossible. He has brought a dead man back to life. He has written a book that is as good and honest and unforgettable as Charlie Bundrum.

Charlie Bundrum was "a tall, bone-thin man who worked with nails in his teeth and a roofing hatchet in a fist as hard as Augusta brick." He was "born into a hateful poverty, fought it all his life and died with nothing except a family that worshipped him and a name that gleams like new money."

He also was Rick Bragg's grandfather, but they never met. Charlie died in 1958, a year before Bragg was born. We first met Charlie and wife Ava in All Over But the Shoutin', Bragg's beautifully written memoir detailing his mother's heroic effort to raise three sons in the dirt-poor Deep South.

"But I was in too much of a rush, people told me," Bragg writes. "I left out the good part."

They were right. This book is even better. His grandfather was an American original, the symbol of a time, a place and a way of life that has mostly vanished. Unlike Bragg's mother, Charlie was no saint. But when he died, even the preacher cried.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer for The New York Times, Bragg is too fine a reporter to hide his grandfather's flaws. Charlie Bundrum couldn't read, but he loved to hear and tell stories. He wouldn't steal, but he cooked illegal moonshine and could outrun the law. He sometimes drank too much, but only once did he let his family down. He could pound the tar out of a man who deserved it, but he was compassionate enough to let a slow-witted river man named Hootie move into his house.

All family stories are dramas, but Bragg's family history either contains more than most or he knows how to tell them better. There are shootings, beatings and at least one killing that was witnessed. There is humor, love and the belief they could endure anything, even the Great Depression, as long as Charlie was around to protect them.

His life was an adventure in survival. Charlie and Ava raised seven children and buried another, moving 21 times in 10 years, chasing jobs or being chased through the foothills along the Alabama-Georgia border. Home was where they happened to be that night, and the parents ate after the children, and sometimes they didn't eat at all.

This is Bragg at his best. He is Charlie Bundrum's grandson, but he is the literary descendant of James Agee and John Steinbeck. He doesn't give the desperate poor their dignity, he exposes it. Bragg knows why the seat wears out first in a roofer's overalls, and why they packed wounds with brown sugar because the doctor lived too far away, and why a man like Charlie would weld together the hoods of two junk cars to make a boat.

It's hard to imagine how this book could be any better. The writing soars, the stories stick, the people breathe and matter. In an age when a television commercial calls a brand of beer "true," when our movies are computer-enhanced to trick us, when our politicians take a poll before opening their mouths, Rick Bragg gives us the portrait of an authentic man whose memory still draws tears from the people who knew him.

"Maybe all men like that deserve a book," Bragg writes. Charlie Bundrum, bless his soul, done got himself a great one.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at The Des Moines Register.

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