Over lunch the other day, an editor asked if I’d like to write a “Rick Bragg” column for her magazine. It was a nice offer, though I sensibly knew that the only man who can write a “Rick Bragg” column is Bragg himself.
Yet I was heartened to be reminded that Bragg’s style has become such a thing unto itself. A “Rick Bragg” column, like a Shaker chair or a Steinway piano, suggests its own way of seeing the world and capturing it through craft.
Bragg, who now lives and teaches in his native Alabama, writes a back-page essay about life in the South for Southern Living magazine. The best of them have been collected, along with some other pieces, in “My Southern Journey,” a new book that’s warmed my time at home for the holidays.
Home is, first and foremost, what Bragg likes to write about. “I write about home,” he tells readers, “so I can be certain that someone else will. It is not more complicated than that. Home for me has always been as much a matter of class as location. My home is not the comfortable South, not the big churches, or the country clubs, or the giant waterfront houses on the lakes or the columned mansions on the main drags … My home is where the working people are, where you still see a Torino every now and then, and people still use motor oil to kill the mange.”
But he likes the lure of the open road, too. One essay, called “Traveling Food,” recounts the great victuals one can get in Southern cafés and drive-ins. Inevitably, Louisiana looms large. “Louisiana may be the wonderland of traveling food,” Bragg observes. “Years ago, after being dropped by a Cajun, I drove through that wet country to eat my way free of a broken heart. I ate rice dressing on Bayou Teche, and boudin at every other gas station. I ignored signs for alligator, because it tastes like an unholy union between a chicken and a Gila monster, and my heart has never been broke that bad.”
Loss, or the prospect of loss, runs through Bragg’s essays, even when he’s smiling on the page. Like another great Southern romantic, Thomas Wolfe, Bragg sounds a consistent note of elegy, aware that few things we treasure last forever.
In a piece called “Wood, Paint, Nails, and Soul,” Bragg recalls the house where he once lived in Uptown New Orleans. “It has termites, and though I know it is silly, I lie in bed sometimes at night and listen to the munching sounds,” he writes. “I only hope that, if they ever do eat the support beams from out under me, I kill a few of them as I fall to the floor.”
That’s pure Bragg — the pleasure of domestic life shadowed by the long hand of decline.
What will endure, Bragg hopes, is the rich memory of what it’s like to be a Southerner in this time and place. He writes, he says, with the faith “that the stories will last whether I do or not …”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.