Friday, March 20, 2009

Ava's Man (a book review)

Reading Rick Braggs stories have conjured up memories from my past. My recent post about my Mama’s Daddy was inspired by this book. The story of Hottie, a man that Bragg’s granddad adopted, got me thinking about a hermit that lived on the beach, just south of Fort Fisher, in an old World War II bunker. I enjoyed this book. I’ve been reading Bragg’s family trilogy backwards, and still have the first book in the group to read.

Rick Bragg, Ava’s Man, (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 259 pages

Rick Bragg never knew his granddaddy. Charlie Bundrum, his mamma’s daddy, died two years before his birth. He’d worked hard all his life, which spanned the years of the Depression. He never got ahead and he died young, in his fifties. Charlie Bundrum wasn’t exactly the most saintly man in the hills of Alabama. He was a roofer, but that often didn’t pay the bills, so he was also a small time moonshiner. One of his pleasures in life was the pint from every gallon that he’d keep for himself; the rest of the hooch he sold to help feed his family. When he needed to, Charlie Bundrum was also a fighter; he protected his family and those he loved as well as they who could not take care of themselves. Bragg describes his grandfather’s morality in this fashion:

He was blessed with that beautiful, selective morality that we Southerners are famous for. Even as a boy, he thought people who steal were trash, real trash. He thought people who would lie were trash… Yet he saw absolutely nothing wrong with downing a full pint of likker—a full pint is enough to get two men as drunk as lords—before engaging in a fistfight that sometimes required hospitalization.’ He saw no reason to obey some laws—like the ones about licenses, fees and other governmental annoyances—but he would not have picked an apple off another man’s ground and eaten it.” (53)

One of the most endearing stories of Charlie Bundrum was his adoption of an older man, who ironically became like a son. Hootie was an elf-like man who lived as a hermit by the river. He earned his name because he talked to owls and they’d answer. He was small, somewhat deformed and, everyone agreed, down-right ugly. Often drunk men along the river would stop by his shack and, for the sport of it, beat him up. Rumors begin to fly around that Hootie had buried treasure there along the banks of the river, some said it was the contents of a bank robbery. These rumors gave drunks and mean men a new reason to beat him up. They’d demand to know where the non-existent look was hidden. Charlie befriended Hootie and the two of them often fished together. It was a good match: Charlie liked to talk and Hootie never had much to say. One day Charlie found Hootie nearly beaten to death. He stayed by his friend that night, with a roofing hatchet in his hand, waiting for the hoodlums to return. They didn’t and the next day he took Hootie home with him. For the next two decades Hootie lived with his family. At first, his wife Ava protested. After all, she and Charlie would eat after the kids had been fed, to make sure everyone had enough. But Charlie reassured her that they’d get by.

Charlie’s wife, Ava, was also a tough woman. Once, a “painted lady” showed interest in Charlie. Ava beat the woman and sent her packing. She also struck out at Charlie, who had allowed the woman to stay in her house. But when a neighbor, taking her side pulled a knife on Charlie, she threw herself in front of Charlie and hissed. Although she was mad at Charlie, she wasn’t going to let anyone else harm her man. The two of them raised a mess of kids as they travelled back and forth between the counties of northern Alabama and northern Georgia in an attempt to eke out a living.

Charlie would work all day in the hot sun and not make ten bucks, but he got five bucks for every gallon on moonshine he sold. His was a pure product, run through clean pipes and often sold by merchants and druggists. Although they came close, the sheriffs and government agents never caught him. Before Charlie would go into the clearing in the swamps where his still was hidden, he’d circle the site like a dog circling a spot to lie down. It’s thought that a dog circles around to make sure he’s not going to plop down on a snake. The moonshiner does it for the same reason. (127)

Charlie wasn’t a religious man. Later in his life he’d have a religious experience, but even after that he didn’t become a regular church-goer. (219) Reflecting on the good memories of his granddad, Bragg notes:

Sometimes a good reputation can be just as inflated as a bad one, but everyone in that part of the world learned of the man’s kindness, and people, people in need or in trouble, just seemed to drift his way. They stayed a night or a month or like Hootie, decades. It is not as romantic, maybe, as his reputation for making good likker, or for laying grown men flat with one good lick, but people still mention it from time to time. (185)

Although Bragg never knew the man, he tells the story as if he’d been there all along…

The hands were magnificent… They hung at the ends of his skinny arms like baseball mitts, so big that a normal man’s hand disappeared in them. The calluses made an unbroken ridge across this palm, and they were rough, rough all over, as shark’s skin. The grease and dirt, permanent as tattoos, inked his skin and the tar and dirt color the quick under his fingernails, then and forever. He could have burned his overalls, changed his name and brought himself a suit and tie, but those hands would have told on him.” (52)

I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it. Bragg is a master storyteller and he has painted with words a lovely picture of his granddad.


  1. Did I miss whether it was fiction or non-fiction. Sounds like someone from these parts. Netchicking.

  2. I think I'd like that one. The line about the hands hanging at the ends of skinny arms reminds me of my dad.

  3. Sounds like an interesting story from a rugged world not so far in the past. Its got a kind of Tom Waits vibe to the story telling. Here from Netchick's 'Good morning!'

  4. The Prince of Frogtown is such an excellent book; I thoroughly enjoy it. The writing is very beautiful. I take longer than usual to read because I just like to bury my face, then smell and savour every word. I may go onto this next... btw, you said he digs Presbyterians in that book, no he doesn't! Maybe the printed version is different from your audio version? Naah, I think you just have too much wax in your ears! :)

  5. Colleen, it is non-fiction,t his is about his grandfather.

    Kenju, I liked that passage about the hands

    Rashbre, he was rugged... I haven't thought of him and Tom Waits--I once used Waits as a way to describe the writings of Richard Ford

    Mother Hen, I am glad you're enjoying Frogtown. His "dig" at Presbyterians was at the opening, where he describes a gathering and says it's hard to be a boy with so many Presbyterians hovering around...

  6. Depression-time stories always get me. I certainly hope none of us will be in the position to tell stories the way people like my grandpa can now.

  7. Charlie's wife sounds like a hoot, but the Hootie story is my favorite.

  8. Sounds good, but I'm currently reading Frankenstein and To Kill a Mockingbird (with my kids). Can't wait for school to be over. ;)

  9. Great review, Sage. I love Ava's Man. This spring we are celebrating all three of Rick Bragg's memoirs at Kalamazoo Public Library as annual our community read.

  10. TC, hard living makes for the best stories--I just hope my hard experiences will stick to wilderness adventures and not move into my regular life

    Scarlet, the story of Hootie is one of tenderness and shows goodness in Charlie's soul

    Fantasy Life, I read "Mockingbird" in school, but not Frankenstein--interesting choice of classroom reading assignments

    Lisa, Thanks! I hope to make it down to KZoo in April when you have Bragg speaking!

  11. Another one to add to my already VERY long TBR pile. Today I received a memoir, Walking Through Walls by Philip Smith. It has got rave reviews in the blog world. I trust those more than I trust any others.

    Do check it out.