About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

67 - Wet, Wet, Wet

My 67th book of the year was Matt Bondurant's The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story (Scribner, 2008). In short, I enjoyed it -- even if the pacing was a bit slow initially, and the book couldn't seem to decide whether it wanted to be, as the title suggests, more of "a novel" or "based on a true story." What made it worth reading anyhow was Bondurant's stellar writing. He sets a scene like nobody's business, transplanting you to the Franklin County, Virginia of the 1920s and '30s in a manner reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy (of the Border Trilogy and No Country for Old Men era, not the boring and overrated The Road), depicting both the natural and manmade in a way that's stark and beautiful and harsh all at once. The title is a paraphrase of Sherwood Anderson's writings in Liberty magazine in 1935, as quoted at the beginning of Part I:
"What is the wettest section in the U.S.A., the place where during prohibition and since, the most illicit liquor has been made? The extreme wet spot, per number of people, isn't New York or Chicago ... the spot that fairly dripped illicit liquor, and kept right on dripping it after prohibition ended ... is Franklin County, Virginia."
The same chapter heading quotes the Official Records of the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement 1935 as estimating that 99 out of 100 people in Franklin County at that time "[were] making, or [had] some connection with, illicit liquor." The Wettest County is the story of 3 of them -- namely, the infamous "blockading" Bondurant brothers, Forrest, Howard, and Jack. Bereft of their mother and 2 sisters by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919, the brothers see no path to survival save making and running illicit liquor; their father's general store barely stays afloat during the Depression, and small-scale tobacco farming is a marginal enterprise -- described by the book's quasi-narrator as "the most awful, thankless, and debilitating agricultural work he ever witnessed" -- even at the best of times (which clearly, this ain't).

Contrary to local folklore, which imagines the Bondurants as birds of a feather, all cut from the same bad boy cloth, the brothers are very different men. Forrest, the eldest, is somewhat of a legend, revered and feared in equal parts after a liquor sale gone bad reveals his seemingly inhuman strength. When asked why everyone is afraid to talk about the Bondurants, neighbor Tom Cundiff explains,
"Tell you what ... Man got his head cut off with a razor. Left for dead, not a spoonful of blood left in 'im, you unnerstan'? And what if I told you this man got up, walked ten miles through a blizzard? What would you say to that? ... Would you believe it?" When the inquirer says he wouldn't, "Well, then, Cundiff said, you got nothin' to be scared of, do you?"
Howard, a giant of a man who even his brothers dismiss as "some kind of machine or animal, reacting to the world in an instinctual manner," is haunted by memories of the Great War, and finds solace only in the exhausting physicality of farm labor.
"Sometimes while in the barn moving hay or in his father's tobacco field he would stop listening to the world and just work, concentrating on the basic repetition of movements, the strain and crack of his muscles. Every so often the perfect cycle of motion and strength was found and it was better than effortless, and the sweetness of the moment rang in delicious ripples through his body."
Sadly, this alone isn't enough to provide for his frail wife, Lucy, and their sickly infant daughter, and he's drawn repeatedly back into the far more lucrative business of making moonshine. And then there's baby brother Jack, probably the most well-developed character, who fervently, desperately hopes blockading will be his ticket out of Franklin County and its hardscrabble existence (well, except for maybe that alluring, Dunkard-churchgoing, banjo player, Bertha Minnix). Older and wiser, Forrest has his doubts, asking Jack, "What makes you think ... that after it gets going you will want it to end?"

What ties the brothers together is family loyalty, of course, and a willingness to fight tooth and nail for what they believe, even when it gets very ugly indeed. As Howard explains to Jack,
"Never does turn out like you think, Howard said. When the first swing happens everything is new an' nothin' is the way you thought. ... I'll tell you what, Howard said, you only need to know one thing. Something ol' Forrest knows. That's you gotta hit first, hit with everythin' you got, and then keep hittin' until the man is down, and then you hit him some more. ... Many men, Howard said, like the idea of fightin' but very few likes to get hit. You can make a man wanna quit real quick with that first shot. A good straight left into the nose bone and most will let it be. A man who likes to get hit is the one to watch out for."
This philosophy is put to the test as Prohibition ends, and local law enforcement officials take the opportunity to put some house rules of their own in play: sure, the liquor trade can continue, but they want a piece of the action, too. Eventually, the Bondurants and Cundiff remain the only holdouts against the "granny fees," and their occupational hazards devolve from the occasional still bust-up to ever more brutal violence. With this angle, the story is less a grown-up Dukes of Hazzard rip-off than a meditation on the loss of the working man's individuality and dignity as the south industrialized, and I definitely found myself rooting for the decidedly non-pastoral Bondurants over the greedy good ole boys in charge.

As I noted above, I think the book's weakest point is Bondurant's (the author's, not the characters' -- and no, this isn't a coincidence, though you don't learn the specifics till the very end) seeming indecision as to whether he's writing historical fiction, or a slightly-dramatized retelling of historical events, a la In Cold Blood. Specifically, the presence of real-life author Sherwood Anderson, who comes to Franklin County to cover a major bootlegging trial, and develops an almost-Capote-like fascination with the illicit liquor trade in general and the Bondurants in particular, muddies up the story. In his struggle to understand the truth of Franklin County, rather than the cliches, he functions almost like a Greek chorus:
"Nights at the boardinghouse Anderson sat scribbling at a battered old sideboard table, trying to think of all the things he had seen that day, trying to remember the hands of the men in the fields, the boys in the curing shed, the grim farmwives in the cookhouse, the lines of their faces, the cut of their work shirts, the seams of their shoes. But in all these things he saw very little. It was as if the character of these people encouraged a sort of blank anonymity ... [T]he strange confines of Franklin, its long skylines, rolling hills, left him with a feeling of enclosure and confinement, as if something dangerous was contained there and the minds of the citizens having to focus on not letting it out."
As such, he offers some interesting observations -- but all in all, I found his chapters distracting and slow, and think his role could have been much smaller while still offering the same sense of perspective.

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