The second of a two-part review of Rick Bragg’s Somebody Told Me. New York: Vintage Books, 2000
Bragg’s is an extraordinary brand of journalism, because it is not rushed, yet it still manages to tell a complete story that digs beneath the news aspect to peel back the human element of a real-life situation. He writes with a quiet, awe-inspired tone, unveiling a story little by little but still managing to pack in plenty of meat. In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, “what the armed thugs have left behind is the dried-out husk of a country that offers America little except leaky boatloads of desperate people and, for a few enterprising American businesses, people who are willing to work like dogs for $3 a day” (56). In “Band Plays on for Class of ‘39” (109-116), he writes:
The survivors are 67 to 69 years old. Most completed careers. They are old enough to draw Social Security. They drive big cars made in Detroit. Most vote Republican. They are fond of bright green pants. And there is more life behind them than ahead of them (110).One tight paragraph gives me such a complete idea of who these characters are, making even the trivial details enticing, that I want to keep reading. By packing seemingly inconsequential details into tight sentences, Bragg makes the people and situations more real.
I notice the way he brings out contrasts to make a story more compelling. Thomas Gurley was once a kidnapper; now he has trouble holding a spoon (24). “The Smith case pitted a man who wants children against a woman who threw hers away” (240). “Marquee signs that once advertised fried catfish promised prayer” (248).
With this technique, Bragg effectively grasps the irony of every-day situations, adding yet another layer of depth to his feature reporting.
Bragg has made a living telling other people’s stories, and in that sense, I want to emulate him. I don’t just want to make a living telling stories; I want to do so with the same sensitivity and emotion Bragg does. As I read about life in the Hamilton Prison for the Aged and Infirm and come to know one of the prison wards, Mr. Berry (23-28), I think about feature writing as a way to express recognition to those who live in the shadows, those whose jobs we take for granted yet depend on for the good of our society every single day.
The final sentence in a story about shootings in New York bodegas is: “No one has figured out a way to put the bullet back in the gun” (52). Here is journalism with a purpose at its best. Bragg exposes me to a terrifying problem and walks away with his hands in the air, compelling me to do the same.
We ask, together, “How do we, as human beings just as ordinary as the victims and the survivors, solve this?”
It is a question I want to make my mission as a writer, as one who makes a living telling people’s stories. And it is a question I want to instill in my sons, as they come and burst into the world.
*See Rick Bragg on writing and the South here.