I never saw him with my own eyes. I know him only from faded black-and-white photographs taken during the Depression, and through the rich, vivid, Technicolor memories of his children . . . .
That was Rick Bragg’s introduction of his granddaddy, Charlie Bundrum, “the finest man I never knew,” in Bragg’s powerful 1997 memoir, All Over but the Shoutin’. Bundrum’s life, times, and considerable legacy of fiercely-held personal and family allegiances are now the subject of Bragg’s latest book, Ava’s Man.
In Ava’s Man, Bragg’s masterful storytelling and vivid portraiture combine to create an incredibly moving and truly unforgettable tale that is at once a deeply poignant form of hero worship, and yet also a clear-eyed, two-fisted, no bullshit account of how poor Southerners survived the Great Depression. “The Depression, endured in the lifetimes of people we know, was our time of heroes and martyrs,” Bragg writes. And to Bragg, and possibly to every one who reads this book, Charlie Bundrum is one of the most compelling examples of both: a complex, mercurial man who loved and lived life deeply, simply, and proudly; a man who made and drank moonshine, yet who never missed a day’s work; a stomp-dancer, story-teller, river-loafer and hammer-fisted fighter whose whipsteel thin body barely contained the anger and strength of ten men, yet who also possessed a loving protectiveness towards his family that twenty men more might never hope to possess:
[His] [family] would have loved him anyway, if times had not been so hard, if he had not saved them from it, but would they have loved him as much? It is easy to be liked when the world has no jagged edges, when
life is electric blankets and peach ice cream. But to be loved, a man needs
a dragon. History gave him one.
Bragg’s personal quest to discover just what it is that makes a man a good man runs throughout both All Over but the Shoutin’ and Ava’s Man. He tells of having been virtually abandoned by a violent, alcoholic father, and of being perpetually haunted by the unspeakable pain and self-sacrifice that his mother endured for the sake of her children. In Charlie Bundrum, Bragg seems to have found the perfect blend of his own mother’s indomitable yet tender love for her family, and that yet untamed (and yet unnamed) source of vitality from which all of the excesses of Southern manhood flow—for good or for ill: “Men drank. Men worked. Men fought. By the time you were thirteen or fourteen, you were a man, or else something pitiful.”
Indeed, in reconciling the opposites of Charlie Bundrum, Bragg seems to reconcile his own contrary impulses and convictions, thus effecting something miraculous, like something from the Book of Isaiah: Yea verily, The Redneck roaring down the crowned blacktop driving the primer-spotted muscle car while throwing Tony Joe White’s sound and his own empty beer cans out the car window WILL lie down with The Journalist who is empathic, astute, and a champion of the down-trodden, Amen.
Like its subject, Ava’s Man is so much larger than its appearance. With this second memoir, Bragg has captured a family’s brightest star and its darkest nights. Few biographies are as fun-filled as this one, and even fewer biographers can match Bragg’s ability to bring to life people and times he has never personally seen, or exceed his skill at rendering mythic the common everyday heroism that is too often overlooked.
A gifted storyteller still needs to find the perfect tale to tell, and it seems the perfect tale will wait and wait until just the right storyteller comes along. Ava’s Man is just that perfect combination, and I cannot recommend it enough.
(c) Copyright 2001 by KNS Mare'