Rick Bragg’s last few books have been charming and entertaining, whimsical, humorous in their different ways, but they have been collections of shorter pieces, like “Where I Come From” and “My Southern Journey” and “The Best Cook in the World,” which is held together by the family stories that surround each dish, each recipe – if there is indeed a written-down recipe.
But the Bragg we are fondest of, I think, is the long-form Bragg of “All Over But the Shoutin’ ” and “Ava’s Man,” narratives that develop and move through time.
“The Speckled Beauty” is such a narrative, but with a profound difference. This book is not about the family’s past, grandfather 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 — his life over the last half-dozen years, and the story is told with an honesty and candor one would not have expected from a writer who has been, despite what his millions of fans might think, a very private person.
For example, in the chapter “Dog Days,” he says “My people do not go to psychiatrists …. We don’t walk around telling people we are depressed, or that we suffer from anxiety.” No one ever called in to the steel plant to say “I won’t be in to work today. I’m working through some unresolved issues with my mother.”
And yet Bragg tells the reader he is suffering from insomnia, having more trouble writing, possibly from his chemo treatments. He’s discouraged about his own health, about the COVID-19 pandemic, about his brother Sam’s health, and on his property as in our society in general there seem to be more water moccasins than ever.
The book is absolutely not a litany of complaints, however. Bragg knows he has been a successful and often lucky fellow. He has won a Pulitzer Prize and won a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University and in the course of his career, he tells us, “I saw more of this world than I ever thought I would. I wore out some shoe leather on the Upper West Side. …I had a shotgun double in New Orleans… and spent four months in a hot hotel room in Port-au-Prince. I watched a camel train appear, like a mirage, on a desert horizon, walked with elephants…and damn near got eaten by an alligator on a rainy right in Belle Glade. I guess I did what I wanted most of my life.”
For the last couple of years, though, life has been narrower, and there are fewer sources of pleasure. All the more irritating then when Bragg, who tells us: “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m a pretty big deal in the Huddle House,” has that taken from him by the pandemic. “Even the Huddle House is closed, and walking through a crowd can get you killed.”
We are all, in varying degrees, trapped in smaller lives.
But his doctor tells him, “I think the dog has been good for you.” The dog, Bragg says, “gave me something to care about.”
And what a dog it is.
Speck shows up, a mess. He has been running with a pack of strays, fighting and, it seems, losing. He was beat down, bloody, starved, with one good eye. Carrying him into the house was “like toting a pillowcase full of sticks.”
But Rick always wanted dogs. He and his mother had saved many of them over the years, and this dog was the right dog at the right time.
They nursed him back to health and although Speck would run off from time to time, returning in wretched shape, he became THE dog, Rick’s dog.
Speck is never well behaved, he pees on everything, chews up towels, bullies the other Bragg dogs, still finds dead beasts to roll in, torments the donkeys and the mule. Bragg relentlessly asks Speck “Who’s a good boy? Are you a good boy?” The answer is NO.
Speck usually controls himself when visitors come, but when a black car, an airport limo, arrives to pick Rick up, he attacks. Mama explains what Rick doesn’t realize; Speck knows Bragg will be away for a few days.
We often endow the dog we love with qualities perhaps he doesn’t deserve. Bragg had always wanted an Australian shepherd, the smartest dog on the planet. So he organizes one chapter around evidence that Speck is a shepherd or at least has shepherd in him. He’s smart, quick, thoughtful, has a need to herd, anything, including people and birds.
When we adopt strays, we wonder about the dog’s previous life. One day, Bragg comes upon 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, mama says, in happier days, taught him to do that.
“Speckled Beauty” is not a story of the past. We live with Bragg and his family in real time, the difficult last five or six years, watching him cope, doing the best he can. And yes, the dog is good for him. Speck and Bragg continue to help one another right now, this very minute.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.
“The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People, Lost and Found”
Author: Rick Bragg
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Price: $26 (Hardcover)