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Dirty Laundry

ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN'. By Rick Bragg . Pantheon: 325 pp., $25

September 14, 1997|GLORIA EMERSON | Gloria Emerson is the author of several books, including "Winners & Losers," an account of the Vietnam War which won a National Book Award

The idea of a journalist born in 1959 writing his memoirs, with no great wars or historic events to report, is surprising. But what Rick Bragg gives us in "All Over but the Shoutin' " is his own story, a record of a life that has been harrowing, cruel and yet triumphant, written so beautifully he makes the book a marvel. "This is not an important book," he writes. "It is only the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeastern Alabama. . . ." He put off writing "All Over but the Shoutin' " for 10 years because "dreaming backwards can carry a man through some dark rooms where the walls seemed lined with razor blades."

It is still a mystery why some children, bent by suffering, can transcend all the horror and hardships while others are doomed. Surely in Bragg's case, it was the love of his mother and her family that saved him as a boy. Scarred and driven, he has almost willed himself to become an astonishing writer who, as a New York Times reporter, won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1996. He is still not a peaceful man, but he no longer needs to wear "that chip on [his] shoulder like a crown."

Rising from so much suffering, he is a master at describing it. When he was barely 16, his mother asked him to go see his father, the "monster of my childhood," who had so often abandoned her and the children, leaving them penniless. He found his father in a dismal room where the older man looked "damaged, poisoned, used-up, crumpled up and thrown in a corner to die." There were gifts for the son: a Remington rifle and three cardboard egg cartons of books which the father had never read. The father just thought they looked pretty, like the books the rich would own.

"It's all over but the shoutin' now, ain't it, boy," he said.

The son asked the father to tell him about the war in Korea; he was refused, and then the drunk man picked "the lock on his past and tugged me inside," Bragg writes. It was the last story, and the father did not use it as an excuse for his behavior or the way he drank.

This is how Bragg tells it:

"The dead waved from the ditches in Korea. The arms of the soldiers reached out from bodies half in, half out of the frozen mud, as if begging for help even after their hearts had cooled and the ice had glazed their eyes." And then: "The ones who were shot were shot through five layers of clothes so sometimes the hurt and blood didn't show. It looked like a whole platoon of men had just gotten weary and laid down to sleep." His father had never felt such cold until Korea.

Bragg, much too fine a writer to use the popular cliche "post-traumatic stress disorder," puts it this way: "I believe . . . that there, in that wretched place where the ground blows up under your feet and dead men motion to you from the sidelines of war, a boy with thin blood was rearranged. I believe it. I want to. I have to."

There is a snapshot of Bragg's mother's lovely face in the book before she was damaged and exhausted in so many ways. The older boys were still too small to protect her from her husband's beatings. She picked cotton when that was still done by hand and at night ironed other people's clothes. She stripped sugar cane. She stood in line at the welfare office and in line for government cheese because she had no choice. She would often not eat supper if there wasn't enough food for the children, as her own mother had done. Finally she went back to live with her mother, and the family was safe from the father, although just as poor.

The child did not know there was a Southern gentry or what privilege it bestowed until he went to school. The poshest place he had ever been was the dime store on the old courthouse square. A caste system divided the first grade: The Cardinals were the children of the well-to-do who studied from nice books, and the Jaybirds were the poor or those considered backward. He could read, but his teacher kept him in the Jaybirds so he would be with his own kind. "May she rot in hell," Bragg writes.

His portrait of the rural, violent Appalachian South, where people were kept crouching as they worked themselves to death, is stunning and sickening: "There was . . . a world of pulpwooders and millworkers and farmers, of men who ripped all the skin off their knuckles working on junk cars and ignored the blood that ran down their arms. In that world, strength and toughness were everything, sometimes the only thing. It was common, acceptable, not to be able to read, but a man who wouldn't fight, couldn't fight, was a pathetic thing. To be afraid was shameful."

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