Having first read Ava’s Man, Bragg’s story of his larger-than-life grandfather, which honestly blew me away, I must confess I was a bit less excited by his memoir. All Over but the Shoutin’ starts out telling the story of his beloved mother, a long-suffering heart-of-gold backwoods gal who stayed tethered to her abusive drunkard of a husband far too long, thereby condemning her three little boys to grinding poverty and herself to a life of unimaginable self-sacrifice. The first half of this book dovetails nicely with Ava’s Man, since the setting, characters and many of the anecdotes are the same and, by knowing the story of the grandparents, the reader actually gets useful insights and a better understanding of succeeding generations and, most specifically, of the author. So I am glad that I read Ava’s Man first.
It is when the book turns properly into a personal journey of how the “white trash” little boy from Alabama became a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, that I discovered that the deep-seated pathos and humor at the golden heart of Ava’s Man was too muted in this earlier work. Instead, the latter half of this memoir turns into a self-deprecating and yet self-justifying account of the author’s life, with mixed results. We are taken with Bragg into riots, into gang warfare, into the tragedies of crime victims and into the hell that was—and remains—the island-nation of Haiti as he learned how to draw on his roots to get to the human element behind the stories, and turn out award-winning features. Bragg also offers us fascinating glimpses into the role of religion in America, into the unique and driven life of a journalist, into the nature of alcohol addiction (his father’s), into the life of a town devastated by a tornado, and much more. And while Ava’s Man was entirely based on life in the rural south during the depression years and beyond, All Over But the Shoutin’ expands our view into urban centers like Miami, Atlanta and New York where Bragg worked during the 80s and 90s, with less satisfying results. The humor is still there, the writing is still compelling, and yet there is something missing, something which Bragg managed to find and weave so powerfully into his next book.
Bragg spends a great deal of the concluding chapters of his book explaining why it took so long to buy his mother a house and why he never settled down with anyone, and he gets a little more drippy about his mom in each succeeding chapter. This book is absolutely worth reading, but if you want to fall in love with Bragg’s writing, start with Ava’s Man.