“More cheerleader than iconoclast” is how my father, a bona fide Southerner, characterizes Rick Bragg, the author of Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South. My father read many of Bragg’s essays in Southern Living and Garden & Gun magazines before I did. I find my dad to be rarely wrong in his assessments, and this is no exception.
Bragg, a professor in the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at the University of Alabama, is one of the South’s greatest contemporary chroniclers. He is the author of several books, including Ava’s Man and All Over but the Shoutin’. He received the 1996 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for stories he wrote for The New York Times.
In his prologue to Where I Come From, Bragg claims that his collection is about “the South’s gentler, easier nature,” and indeed, there is nothing here that is too critical or too controversial. Bragg calls the South “troubled and imperfect,” but his tone is light and observational… and doting. His collection is in essence a paean to the South and to all things Southern.
The essays are divided into parts with titles like “The Best Part of the Pig,” “Relations,” and “Haunted Mansions.” They are short and wry, and their endings are pithy — tidy even — and bring his observations full circle. Here, one can read Bragg’s thoughts on fishing, red wasps, weather, traffic, pick-up trucks, pigs’ feet and po’boys, ghosts, Tupperware, and three-bladed, bone-handled knives. His mother figures prominently, too — her fondness for snuff, Red Diamond coffee, in-home permanents, thrift stores, and mariachi music.
Reading Rick Bragg is not like reading, say, David Sedaris. The essays are not laugh-out-loud funny, not by a stretch; instead, they are droll, ironic, leading to a quiet “Hm” and a smile, occasionally a chuckle. In “Life in the Slow Lane,” for instance, Bragg writes, “I was on the interstate in Atlanta and moving at the speed of warm lead. No. Wait… I only thought I was moving. It was just a hamburger sack blowing in the other direction.” Ha, I thought.
“Why is it always rich folks’ residences that are haunted?” he wonders in “Free Spirits.” “Does every person who is stinking wealthy in the Deep South get to have a ghost?” Southern ghosts seem to have a predilection for spiral staircases, not carports, he says. Indeed!
His voice is that of an everyman; he is self-deprecating about the way the hair grows from his head, his inability to fish or play football or golf, the way he’s like a po’boy — “…overstuffed, a little sloppy, relatively cheap, and bad for you — and, as often as in reality, wearing gravy someplace on me.” He’s ordinary and down-to-earth, and so we believe he’s telling it like it is, and we trust him.
But there’s not just wit here. There is pathos, too. Bragg lived for some time in New Orleans and remembers it fondly. I was riveted by a moment the author spent on the balcony of the Columns Hotel on St. Charles, listening to the creaking of the oak trees and the “clanking, whirring, beautiful, antiquated, inefficient, irreplaceable” streetcars until finally noticing a strand of white beads in the branches, left behind by some reveler in some parade during some Carnival some time before. It is a perfect moment, perfectly captured.
One of my favorite essays in the collection, though, is “The Talker,” a touching profile of the author’s deceased Uncle Jimbo, a great storyteller. “He had the power to tug a person back in time. And in that silence, I could almost hear the times change, and those bridges fall.” Jimbo, apparently, liked the cemetery, “where a man his age had to go to talk to anybody who could appreciate him.”
The South Bragg understands and adores is the working-class South. The Southerners he writes about aren’t the hoity-toity ones. The Southerners he writes about are “the descendants of people who could only get their name in the newspaper or the history books if they knocked some rich guy off his horse.”
As I read, I realized that this, too, is my father’s South. Full of charms. How comforting it is to know that Bragg writes about this South. And so prettily, too.
Where I Come From: Stories from the Deep South
By Rick Bragg
Alfred A. Knopf
Published October 27, 2020
Paperback August 10, 2021