Rick Bragg’s latest books were charming and entertaining, whimsical, humorous in their various ways, but they were collections of shorter pieces, like “Where I Come From” and “My Southern Journey” and “The Best Cook in the World, âwhich fits into the family stories that surround every dish, every recipe – if there is a written recipe.
But the Bragg that we love the most, I think, is the long Bragg of âAll Over But the Shoutin ‘â and âAva’s Man,â stories that develop and move through time.
“The Speckled Beauty” is such a tale, but with a profound difference. This book is not about the family’s past, about Grandpa Bundrum or Bragg’s father, “The Prince of Frogtown”, or his mother, who is the center of “All Over but the Shoutin”.
This book, “The Speckled Beauty,” is about Rick Bragg himself – of his life over the past half-dozen years, and the story is told with an honesty and frankness one could not have dreamed of. expect from a writer who was, despite what his millions of fans might think, a very private person.
For example, in the chapter âDog Daysâ he says âMy people don’t go to psychiatristsâ¦. We don’t go around telling people that we are depressed or have anxiety. No one has ever called the steel plant and said, âI won’t be here to work today. I am working on unresolved issues with my mom.
And yet, Bragg tells the reader that he suffers from insomnia, that he has a harder time writing, possibly because of his chemotherapy treatments. He is disheartened by his own health, by the COVID-19 pandemic, by the health of his brother Sam and on his property as in our society in general there seem to be more water moccasins than ever before.
The book is by no means a litany of complaints, however. Bragg knows he has been a successful and often lucky man. He won a Pulitzer Prize and a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University and over the course of his career he tells us, âI have seen more of this world than I ever thought I would. I used shoe leather on the Upper West Side. â¦ I had a double shotgun in New Orleansâ¦ and spent four months in a hot hotel room in Port-au-Prince. I watched a train of camels appear, like a mirage, on a desert horizon, walking with elephantsâ¦ and being devoured by an alligator on a rainy right at Belle Glade. I guess I did what I wanted most of my life.
In recent years, however, life has become more narrow and there are fewer sources of pleasure. All the more annoying that Bragg, who tells us, “I don’t want to brag, but I’m a big deal in the Huddle House,” got that taken away by the pandemic. “Even the Huddle House is closed, and walking through a crowd can get you killed.”
We are all, to varying degrees, trapped in smaller lives.
But her doctor said to her, âI think the dog has been good for you. The dog, Bragg said, “gave me something to worry about.”
And what a dog it is.
Speck arrives, a mess. He ran with a pack of stray dogs, fought and, it seems, lost. He was beaten, bloodied, starved, with only one good eye. Carrying him around the house was “like carrying a pillowcase full of sticks.”
But Rick always wanted dogs. He and his mother had saved many over the years, and this dog was the right dog at the right time.
They healed him and although Speck ran away from time to time, coming back in miserable form, he became THE dog, Rick’s dog.
Speck is never well behaved, he pees everything, chews towels, intimidates other Bragg dogs, still finds dead animals to ride, torments donkeys and mules. Bragg relentlessly asks Speck, “Who’s a good boy?” Are you a good boy The answer is no.
Speck usually checks himself in when visitors arrive, but when a black car, an airport limo, arrives to pick up Rick, he attacks. Mom explains what Rick doesn’t realize; Speck knows Bragg will be out for a few days.
We often endow the dog we love with qualities that they may not deserve. Bragg had always wanted an Australian Shepherd, the smartest dog on the planet. So he organizes a chapter around the proof that Speck is a shepherd or at least has a shepherd in him. He is smart, quick, thoughtful, needs to bring anything together including people and birds.
When we adopt stray dogs, we wonder about the dog’s previous life. One day, Bragg runs into his mother playing peep-eye (Peek-a-boo) with Speck, who already knows how to cover his eyes with his paws. Someone, probably a child, says Mom, in happier days, taught her how to do this.
“Speckled Beauty” is not a story of the past. We live with Bragg and his family in real time, the last five or six difficult years, watching him cope, do his best. And yes, the dog is good for him. Speck and Bragg continue to help each other right now.
Don Noble’s latest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson and eleven other authors from Alabama.
“The speckled beauty: a dog and his people, lost and found”
Author: Rick Bragg
Editor: Alfred A. Knopf
Price: $ 26 (Hardcover)