It's a pleasure of my profession that my heroes write and sell books, because that process necessitates book tours, wherein the people I admire and learn from have to come out in public and talk about themselves, their writing, and--in Rick Bragg's case--their mommas.
(If you haven't read Bragg's 1997 ode to his mother, All Over But the Shoutin', stop reading this right now. March yourself over to the nearest bookstore or library and get yourself a copy. We'll be here until next week's Indy comes out, and I guarantee you'll finish the book by then.)
Fresh from Pakistan, where he profiled U.S. allies and ate a lot of goat ("And I don't even like goat," he confided), Bragg came to Chapel Hill, Chatham County and Durham recently to promote his new book, Ava's Man, just nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. After a lunch of Mama Dip's fried chicken, he got up in front of a barn full of elderly Fearrington Village residents and poked fun at their trademark belted Galloways, calling them "rich people's cows."
I'll admit I'm particularly fond of Bragg because my Daddy grew up in the same world Bragg's momma did. But you don't have to be Southern, white, poor, or a fellow journalist to appreciate Bragg's turns of phrase. Consider this sentence, from Shoutin': "A lot of families just came to pieces in that time and place and condition, like paper lace in a summer rain."
Having escaped the poverty of his Georgia and Alabama upbringing with words and stubbornness, Bragg, 42, won the Pulitzer for feature writing in 1996. He is currently a correspondent for The New York Times. Translation: After winning the highest honor in the field, he now writes about anything he wants, anywhere he wants, for the best newspaper in the country.
At Fearrington, Bragg looked like he'd slept in his clothes, hadn't bothered with a belt, and went out of his way to point out how the narrow podium couldn't hide his belly. During his 90-minute speech, the poor-white-trash-boy-made-good shtick got a little old, and Bragg spent way too much time telling a not-that-funny story about his mother's dog.
But none of that mattered. Because when he read from Ava's Man, and when he painted pictures of Pakistan for us, poetry laced with humor flowed like a long swig of moonshine, and we drank up the words.