I am a sucker for a good father story.
By that I mean an enjoyable story about the experience of fatherhood, whether its told from the point of view of the fathered or the father. Certainly I don’t mean the father has to be good. Terrible fathers are some of the most compelling portraits of fatherhood in literature today, from hopeless alcoholics (Angela’s Ashes) to clinging despots (This Boy’s Life). The Prince of Frogtown is about Rick Bragg’s father, Charles Bragg, a no good father for sure.
Right off the bat, Bragg tells us he has written about his father in two earlier memoirs (neither of which I have read). If he is candid about having previously dismissed his father as a drunken lout, his reasons for revisiting him in the current work are less clear. We learn that a 10 year-old stepson has come into the author’s life and he wants… what? Reconciliation? Redemption? To his credit, Bragg never absolves his father, but he does paint a complicated picture of the circumstances that contributed to his downfall.
What drives this story is Bragg’s relationship with his stepson. What a pleasure to watch it unfold: The demanding, macho Bragg tries hard to relate to a boy of the 90s, who isn’t as invested in the same boyhood ethos that Bragg has long held in such high esteem. Bragg inserts these short vignettes about himself and the boy between the longer chapters that document his own father’s circumstances. Those longer chapters suffer somewhat from coming to us second hand and from so long ago (the older Bragg died young in the 70s, the author hardly knew him).
Despite making up the bulk of the book, those longer chapters work best as context for the relationship between author and stepson. And the beauty of that relationship is how man and child move slowly toward one another: the boy picking up some of those old school boyhood values to impress the adult, who in turn ends up having to discard his reverence for some of those very same values to accept the boy.
A little bit of give, a little bit of take: That’s mostly what fatherhood is all about.