THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE: A MEMOIR
By Nancy Bachrach
Published by Alfred A. Knopf; Hardbound and Paperback, ©2009, 234 pp
By Rick Bragg
Published by Vintage/Random House; Paperback, ©2001, 259 pp
Reviewed by Jill Norgren
Our hunger for family memoir appears to fill some deep and continuous social-psychic need. Confessional sells, pathology sells. We live in a therapeutic culture, aided by a media bursting with voyeuristic experience available for daily, indeed, hourly, consumption. Writer David Shields argues that novels no longer reflect reality. Memoirists, he concludes, have stepped in to fill the literary void.
The memoir genre offers something for every reader. Misery memoirs written by “survivors” abound. Getting even occurs more often than gangland hits. Fortunately, however, despite library shelves full of self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement, and neediness, there are also elegant and absorbing narratives that tell stories infused with affection, selflessness, and straight-up truths.
In Center of the Universe, first-time author Nancy Bachrach offers readers a mordantly funny and deeply affecting recollection of Lola, her red-headed mom who sports a beehive “do.” Urban, middle-class, Jewish, and not infrequently mentally ill, Lola’s world and problems could not be further from those of Charlie Bundrum, the hero at the center Ava’s Man, Rick Bragg’s lyrical remembrance of his grandfather. Charlie and his family have deep roots in Depression-era Alabama and Georgia, the Old South. They are poor and rural, “hard-bitten” Congregational Holiness, “who take their Bible straight up…speak in tongues…weep and laugh and go into trances, as if dead.” Charlie, who died in 1958, was a roofer, a drinker, a man of backwoods legend but most of all a man with an abiding love of family.
Bachrach and Bragg have the light, tight touch of gifted writers. Bachrach comes to the writing of memoir from a career in advertising. She comes to this particular story after receiving a phone call from her physician brother telling her their father has died of carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping on the family boat, Mr. Fix It. Their mother, asleep next to him, has been saved from death by the nearness of a small window, but lies in a coma.
Waiting on Lola’s fate provides Bachrach with the narrative arc of her memoir, the space to explore who Lola was before the poisons took her consciousness, and to chew on the previously tortured relationship of mother and daughter. Bachrach’s forte lies in her ability to infuse a story overflowing with ego and illness with humor. She takes risks with this approach. It works. Where academics offer long, abstract explanations of manic depression, she cuts to the heart of matter, showing what it is like for a child to live with a manic: “Mania is broiling and freezing thirty dozen chicken wings in Catalina sauce ‘to get a jump of condolence meals’ for friends who aren’t feeling well but aren’t dead yet.” “Who’s gonna notice the freezer burn,” Lola asks.
Bachrach leads us through the twists and turns of Lola life before the accident, along with the amazements of Lola as she recovers. In regaining her health, Lola makes new understandings possible for her daughter, marking this as a story of re-engagement and, finally, of love replacing embarrassment and darker negative emotions. Bachrach distinguishes herself by writing a cannot-put-down story that spells out a universal lesson on the value of hope and commitment.
Rick Bragg is as natural a story teller as they come. He previously wrote the much-acclaimed All Over But the Shoutin’. He has an infallible ear for dialogue, and shapes tales that sing with the nobility and decency of ordinary people. Bachrach’s odyssey centers upon discovering love and respect. Bragg has no journey. From his earliest days he is schooled by his family in the goodness of his grandfather. Trained as a journalist, he has taken on the job of writing Charlie’s life. Through interviews with friends and family years after Charlie’s death, he teases fact from fiction and comes up with a gleaming portrait of his near-ancestors.
Bragg’s story lies in Charlie Bundrum being a good man who was no saint. He liked likker, he made likker, and he spent a good deal of time avoiding the revenue men, sometimes suffering for it. As Bragg describes, “The law, frustrated at not being able to catch him, dogged him. More than a few police, tired of being knocked upside the head by him when they had tried to haul him to jail for other things, followed him along dirt roads, and pulled him over when he wobbled.”
Charlie was hard working but restless, dragging his growing family from shack-house to shack-house. Gentle with his loved ones, he led with his fist, or gun, when survival, or pride, demanded. Dogged for decades by poverty, he and Ava, his wife, provided for their brood but repeatedly suffered the fate of country people who could not afford medical care in times of emergency. Children died or suffered who need not have, had money not been the currency of care.
Bragg makes it clear that caring was Charlie’s strong suite. He loved Ava even when she slipped into bad spells and edged up against debilitating blues. He adopted Hootie, a quiet, eccentric homeless man, who lived for years with the Bundrum family. When his grown son set out to kill a man, Charlie knocked him out cold, first telling him, “Son, you got a wife and a little baby in that house … you’d be gone … they’d put you in the penitentiary and who would take care of them?” Then he adds, “If you ever do anything that damn dumb again, I’ll leave you for the buzzards.” Later, his son recollects, “things like that, make you love your daddy. I know everybody loves their daddy, I know you’re supposed to. But there I was, a grown-up man, and he was still saving me.” That was Charlie Bundrum, a man to look up to, a man of old-fashioned principle, wits, and honor.
The Center of the Universe and Ava’s Man are better than worthy reads. Each has an engaging, admirable literary quality; each takes us into worlds touched by love, redolent with the importance of responsibility and the possibilities of humor. These are perfect books to pick up in this season of celebrating mothers and fathers.