What kind of man is it, Rick Bragg asks, who is so beloved, so missed, that the mere mention of his death 42 years later could send his daughters running out of the room in tears?
"A man like that," Bragg thought, "probably deserves a book."
Bragg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "All Over But the Shoutin'," grew up not knowing his grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, so he decided to build him up "from dirt-level, using half-forgotten sayings, half-remembered stories." But those halves come together to form a moving whole portrait of a man who "grew up in hateful poverty, fought it all his life and died with nothing except a family that worshipped him and a name that gleams like new money."
In "Ava's Man" (Knopf, 259 pages, $25), Bragg has created a concrete legacy for a man who "was one of the finest storytellers who ever lived in our part of the country, a spinner of beautiful campfire stories and notorious tall tales," a man who "lived for fiddle music and corn likker, and became a white-hot banjo picker and a buck dancer and a ladies' man."
Charlie and Ava Bundrum had seven children, and during the Depression they moved 21 times in the Alabama-Georgia border region. Theirs was a life of near-constant deprivation, but Bragg's strong, intimate voice brings Charlie's love of life to the forefront. "Few doors were closed to him, because of his nature. ... He was happy being who he was, without even an expectation of wings, and feet of clay."
Making his living mainly as a roofer and a builder (while brewing up some "Grade A moonshine" on the side), he was well-known for his kindness, and "people in need or trouble just seemed to drift his way." He was the protector of many, but especially of Hootie, a misunderstood hermit who became his fishing buddy and whom Charlie later adopted (to Ava's great consternation).
Fishing was done partly for sport but mostly for food. Once, when Charlie had gone fishing in Guntersville, Ala., he got caught in a flood and his family thought he was gone for good. But he had taken the bus to Birmingham and was sitting on a bench "near a group of other ragged men" when the police arrested him for vagrancy. He didn't have money to make bail and was missing for two weeks before his son James could reach a county clerk who knew how "Bundrum" looked written on paper. Upon his return, his children rejoiced. "That was when I learned to pray," Margaret (Bragg's mother), said. "I promised the Lord a lot of things if he would let my daddy come back."
Charlie loved children "if he ever was good at one thing on this earth it was being a daddy" and never had a quiet time between his children and grandchildren. "Some men walk in the room, and babies laugh out loud," Bragg writes, in a touching summation of his grandfather's character.
When Charlie died, the two men who "preached him home" spoke of him as "a fine father, which was the gospel, unbending truth" and praised him as "a man with courage and heart, a man of charity, but one who never asked for it."
His great-nephew, Travis Bundrum, thinks he deserves a monument "because there ain't no more like him. All his kind are gone."
In "All Over But the Shoutin'," Bragg wrote that he "will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones. It is still a damn hard thing to do, when you think about it."
It certainly is, but Bragg has stirringly done it again with "Ava's Man."