January 20, 2010


I finally got around to reading this memoir last week. I think, along with Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, that Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin' was one of the "big" memoirs to hit in the late 1990s that really secured the genre a more popular and permanent place on the shelf. So to speak.

Anyway, it's hard for me to review the book without feeling like I'm reviewing the man, himself. Such are the treacherous waters of the memoir. I will say this, however: ladies, if it's true what your mama says about avoiding relationships with men who hate their mothers, than it's also true that you should be a little leery about a man who puts his mama up on this high of a pedestal. (And Bragg himself pretty much admits that he runs close to being a womanizer.)
I truly liked the first half of the book, which chronicles Bragg's childhood as the middle son of single mother "who went 18 years without a new dress" to provide for her three boys.  His father, who dies an old man of TB and alcohol at 41, leaves his family over and over, and returns for brief spells of relative comfort before his violent streak erupts yet again.    The book reminded me a lot of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, the feminine version of growing up as a dirt-poor white in the rural South. Allison's story has a lot more violence, or maybe she's just a bit more brutal with her truths. The thing about Bragg is, he establishes himself as a good 'ol boy early on, and keeps that voice poured on thick as red-eye gravy throughout the book -- even after he becomes one of them big-time city reporters working for the New York Times. It seems important for him to get the message across that he can still kick your privileged ass, never mind his high-falutin' Pulitzer Prize. (And unless you grew up, like him, without indoor plumbing, then he considers us all members of the privileged class.)

I understand that Bragg opens strong with this voice of a poor, white boy from Alabama with only a high-school education and one unit of community college under his belt to establish just who he is and where he comes from -- and that "where he comes from" element is of course the main crux of the book. Still, by the time he becomes a national correspondent for the Times in the latter half of the book, I felt pretty weary of the cornpone still sprinkled through his paragraphs.

This book was published in 1997, over ten years before last year's presidential election. I wonder, if I had read All Over But the Shoutin' before I'd ever heard of Sarah Palin, if I'd still be quite so skeptical of Bragg's voice? The thing is, despite his need to wear his roots like a big 'ol chip on his shoulder (and to be fair, this is something he readily owns up to), I do like Bragg, I like his writing --- despite the bluffing, he obviously feels things deeply -- and I like his book.

And I found myself wondering, more than once, just what he thinks of Palin and how she exploits that  "aw-shucks" language to seduce all the Joe 6-Packs of the world. Bragg, despite himself, is a sophisticate now, no matter his blue collar roots. City boy or country boy -- either way,  I reckon he's smart enough to smell that bad dog coming from a country mile up the road. 


  1. I read it way back when, and I recalled liking it but also merely finishing it, not relishing it. I'm not sure I ever put my finger on just why the book failed to leave any lasting impression. Maybe it was that good ol' boy shtik that wore thin. Or, I might have been reading way too many memoirs at the time.

  2. Well, the last 1/3 of the book covers his own stories for the NYT, and how he came to win the Pulitzer, and finally bought his mom a house, free and clear. It was interesting enough, but not as compelling as the beginning.

    Altho I did like how, even after buying his mama a big new house, the demons of the past were still right there, very present. He could not really "buy" her out of the sadness of their history.

  3. You know how much I love this book, even though I later learned that he appropriated the reporting of others into his stories for the NYTimes, which did not affect the book or have much to do with it to my knowledge. The part at the end, where his mother worries about her teeth, or lack thereof, I found so moving and realistic regarding the Southern women who live in the poorer parts of Appalachia. Most women like that, of that age, never took a thing for themselves. My mom, although a thousand times more sophisticated, also takes very little for herself. I am sure this role model, while frustrating if you are the child who wants more for your mom, made me a better mom, wife and person than I would have been without her.


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