April 2, 2008
The Prince of Frogtown
The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg
Nonfiction - Memoir
Finished on 3/30/08
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
ARC - Due out on May 6, 2008
In this final volume of the beloved American saga that began with All Over but the Shoutin’ and continued with Ava’s Man, Rick Bragg closes his circle of family stories with an unforgettable tale about fathers and sons inspired by his own relationship with his ten-year-old stepson.
He learns, right from the start, that a man who chases a woman with a child is like a dog who chases a car and wins. He discovers that he is unsuited to fatherhood, unsuited to fathering this boy in particular, a boy who does not know how to throw a punch and doesn’t need to; a boy accustomed to love and affection rather than violence and neglect; in short, a boy wholly unlike the child Rick once was, and who longs for a relationship with Rick that Rick hasn’t the first inkling of how to embark on. With the weight of this new boy tugging at his clothes, Rick sets out to understand his father, his son, and himself.
The Prince of Frogtown documents a mesmerizing journey back in time to the lush Alabama landscape of Rick’s youth, to Jacksonville’s one-hundred-year-old mill, the town’s blight and salvation; and to a troubled, charismatic hustler coming of age in its shadow, Rick’s father, a man bound to bring harm even to those he truly loves. And the book documents the unexpected corollary to it, the marvelous journey of Rick’s later life: a journey into fatherhood, and toward a child for whom he comes to feel a devotion that staggers him. With candor, insight, tremendous humor, and the remarkable gift for descriptive storytelling on which he made his name, Rick Bragg delivers a brilliant and moving rumination on the lives of boys and men, a poignant reflection on what it means to be a father and a son.
It's been almost a decade since I first heard of Rick Bragg. I absolutely loved his first memoir, All Over but the Shoutin', savoring the beautifully crafted sentences, laughing and crying my way through the entire book. It's one of the first memoirs I'd ever read and I was so moved by Bragg's story and writing, I bought several copies to give at Christmastime that year.
When Ava's Man was about to come out, a former co-worker sent me an Advance Reader's Copy. I couldn't wait to return to Bragg's lyrical writing and quickly finished the book I was reading. Unfortunately, I couldn't get past the first few chapters of Ava's Man, despite two separate attempts. I was so disappointed!
So when that same friend sent me an ARC of The Prince of Frogtown, I was a little more prepared when it, too, failed to live up to All Over But the Shoutin'. However, unlike with Ava's Man, I stuck with it, determined to read the entire book. (Which I did, although I have to admit that did skim a chapter or two.)
In water so fine, a few minutes of bad memory all but disappear downstream, washed away by ten thousand belly busters, a million cannonballs. Paradise was never heaven-high when I was a boy but waist-deep, an oasis of cutoff blue jeans and raggedy Converse sneakers, sweating bottles of Nehi Grape and Orange Crush, and this stream. I remember the antidote of icy water against my blistered skin, and the taste of mushy tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches, unwrapped from twice-used aluminum foil. I saw my first water moccasin here, and my first real girl, and being a child of the foot washers, I have sometimes wondered if this was my Eden, and my serpent. If it was, I didn't hold out any longer than that first poor fool did. It took something as powerful as that, as girls to tug me away from this tribe of sunburned little boys, to scatter us from this place of double-dog dares, Blow Pops, Cherry Bombs, Indian burns, chicken fights, and giggling, half-wit choruses of "Bald-Headed Man from China." Maybe we should have nailed up a sign--NO GIRLS ALLOWED--and lived out our lives here, to fight mean bulls from the safe side of a barbed-wire fence with a cape cut from a red tank top, and duel to the death with swords sliced of a weeping willow tree. I don't know what kind of man I turned out to be, but I was good at being a boy.
And so begins The Prince of Frogtown. I love the way Bragg writes. It's impossible to read his words and think he's from anywhere but the South. His sentences have a cadence that make me want to read them over and over again, listening as I would to a favorite song.
It was the year I realized the TV preachers' rants on hell were all wrong, that the devil lives in Alabama, and swims in a Mason jar. He lost his looks, drank his paychecks, wrecked his old cars, and stiffed the Tennessee Valley Electric until all they would give us was free dark.
My biggest complaint lies not in the writing, but the focus of The Prince of Frogtown. I wish Bragg had written more about his relationship with his stepson and less about his father. But obviously, as the title tells us, the book is really more about the latter, with short (2-3 page) vignettes about his stepson. And yet I wonder if I really would have liked it better if the emphasis were more on his own parenting, than the lack of his father's. In spite of the lyrical prose, there were times I thought, I don't really like this man (Rick, not Charles) at all. I was really put off by Bragg's initial attitude toward his young stepson. He didn't understand the boy, felt he was pampered and spoiled by his mother, and he doesn't hesitate to tell the reader just how he feels about his new life as a husband and father.
I was born into a people who could cuss the horns off a bull, before revival and after dinner on the ground, but he lived in a world rated G with candy sprinkles on top.
And there were times when I though he was downright mean-spirited toward the boy. After reading the following blurb from a Kirkus review, I see I'm not the only one who had these same reservations about the book:
Alternating chapters on his unnamed stepson, by contrast, resound more with the annoyance Bragg feels at the start than the love he professes at the end, at which point the author sounds uncomfortably self-congratulatory about the maturation of his stepson, now "the man I rushed him to be."
Personally, I'd rather be a pampered and spoiled child than grow up amongst dog-fighting, cock-fighting, gambling drunks.
Bragg's love for the boy he calls his son begins to show itself toward the end of the book, tugging at my heartstrings in spite of myself:
I waited for him, as he got older, to torture me with rap, or heavy metal, or plastic top forty. But one day he heard Johnny Cash, and his life changed. I heard him in his room, singing "Get Rhythm" and "Folsom Prison Blues."
He sings well. His voice is deep, strong. He sings from the backseat. He sings to the dog. I stood in the kitchen recently and watched him sing as he walked around in the yard. It was one of the finer moments in my life.
And, I couldn't help but chuckle when he poked fun at women:
He does not like girls, yet.
"Why do they talk so fast?" he asked me. "I can't understand what they say."
"That's all right, boy," I said. "You won't be able to understand them when they talk slow, either."
But the sprinkles of humor and touching sentiments are few and far between. I'll be interested to see what others think of the book once it's published. Meanwhile, All Over But the Shoutin' remains one of my all-time favorite memoirs. It might just be time for another reading.