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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Wettest County in the World

The Wettest County in the World, aka The Drastic Measures Southwest Virginians Will Take To Avoid Paying Taxes.

Matt Bondurant's novel, if you can't tell from the title, is all about moonshine and bootlegging during the Prohibition era in America. It follows two sets of narratives, that of the Bondurant brothers--the author's real life grandfather and granduncles--and Sherwood Anderson, the author researching the Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935. The author used stories passed down through his family as well as newspaper articles and other research to piece together a story.

At several points Bondurant stresses the difficulty of getting people in rural communities to speak about bootlegging, through the trials of the novelist Anderson in the story, and in the epilogue describing his own experiences writing the novel. I identify completely. I grew up and still live in southwest Virginia, currently about 15 minutes away from where most of the events in the novel take place. I didn't discover my grandfather was a blockade runner during the Depression until after he passed away. It had never been discussed before, especially not by him. It was only told to me as an explanation for why my father has never touched alcohol in his life. Anything beyond that is taboo territory. But I can guess at the details.

The prose in the novel is very lyrical and beautiful, and really surprised me. I suppose I was expecting something more blunt and objective, à la Cormac McCarthy. The characters may be silent, rough mountain people, but Bondurant exposes their souls in a way that's really moving. The men in the story are three dimensional, so different from the stereotypes saturating most depictions of the region during that era. The narrative structure was not as impressive, being broken up into two different (but intersecting) story lines, and bouncing around to different points in time. Anderson's narrative, while interesting, takes away from tension of the Bondurant's story, and reveals several key plot points way too early. If you want to know whether the Bondurant boys live or get their revenge, all you have to do is read the first few chapters. Instead the major source of tension is set up as the outcome of the Moonshine Conspiracy trial, which I honestly couldn't care less about.

I mentioned earlier that the "men in the story" are three dimensional. I say that because unfortunately the women are not. I was willing to overlook it, being a book focused on the pursuits of three brothers, but a few passages are forcing my hand.

Take this one, from the mind of the author Sherwood Anderson:

Individuality will pass into the smoky realm of history. The day will come, Anderson knew, when we will all become soldiers in the army of the corporate age. When he was a boy there were no autos, planes, radios, chain stores, or great bloated trusts pushing their interests around the world. Men lived free lives then... He was only trying to say that when the world is mechanized something goes out of men, something elemental is lost. The female world, on the other hand, was ascendant: the world of possessions, the material world. The female is at home among these things. Men suffered for a lack of drive, starving for the tactile world.
Oh these poor manly men, losing their elemental spirit of manness. "Men lived free lives then." Please just bludgeon me to death with a Hemingway novel and let me rise into heaven (with all my diamonds and shoes apparently).

[small spoiler alert]
I understand what he's trying to say, but he managed to use all the wrong words in saying it. There are only a handful of female characters in the novel, one being Lucy, the wife of one of the brothers. She seems to exemplify the above statement, nagging her poor old husband for silly things like 'food' and 'shelter' for herself and infant child. Come on lady, get a job! What do you think this is, Depression era America? Another is Maggie, who is independent, has a job, and uses her earnings to dress nice. So of course she's raped. The only character-building tool writers can seem to come up with these days.
[end spoiler alert]

There was one female character I was extremely interested in, the real life Willie Carter Sharpe, one of the most notorious blockade runners of the era. She's the entire reason the author Sherwood Anderson is in Franklin County, and he obsesses over her profusely. There are rumors galore about her person: she has diamonds set in her teeth, she can drive faster than anyone around, drink more than the boys, etc. So what happens when Anderson finally sees her?

The experience was a disappointing one for most, including Anderson, who saw his hopes of a great mountain heroine die with her appearance on the witness stand... To Anderson she was jowly like a bulldog and crass of language and aspect. The overall impression was more like that of a gorilla in a dress.
That's it. The end. She's never mentioned again and the novel ends. My god if she isn't gorgeous and doesn't literally have diamonds set in her teeth like some hillbilly Flavor Flav, then who cares amirite?

What I'm trying to say is a I want to read a novel all about Willie Carter Sharpe. Diamond teeth or no. 

Enough with the bad. On to the good. Here are two passages I liked:

The last of the rain, in early April, gave way to the long waste of drought, blazing blue skies, cloudless, sparkling with dust. The early shoots withered in a matter of weeks, the bony cattle following the thin licks up the creek beds, planting their muzzles deep in any soft patch of mud. Fish crowded in the deep eddies and boys waded in to grab mud cats and carp with their hands. Headlights sweeping over a field at night found them alive with glowing eyes as packs of deer came down from the mountains desperate for water, parched and defiant. The old superstitions raised their hoary heads and traveling through stands of woods in Franklin County that summer you would occasionally find a snake hanging from a tree, nailed by the head, an ancient appeal to the wood gods to bring the rains back. Fields of yellow, stunted tobacco with untopped blooms covered the county. Red clay surged to the surface through the scattered weeds, the powder rising into the air on no wind at all, like transpiration, the dry sucking up the dry, and so a fine silt of clay was worn in every crease, in the eyes of dogs, in the skillets of fatback and pintos. A matter of minutes after you swept the floor clean you could draw in it with your finger. Men stood with their hands in their pockets, heads low, scuffing their boots, dreaming of sudden, angry cloudbursts. They knew when the tobacco died the shooting would begin.


It amazed Forrest that so many men seemed to wake up in the morning needing some kind of beating or another, men saying and doing fantastic things for the sake of getting another man to smash his face. Perhaps it was the aftermath, the burning humiliation of it they sought, when the aching morning came and they rolled over in the dirt and felt their mouth for teeth or lightly touched the split ear, the face in the rearview mirror swollen and crusted with blood. Forrest figured if these men wanted it he might as well give it to them.

Liked because it sounds exactly like something my dad would say.

If you're interested, in late August the film adaptation of the novel will be released, titled Lawless. I hope you are interested, because I read the novel for a reason. I've been planning for some time to start another blog, somewhere where I could combine my love of film and literature. So that's what I'll be doing, hopefully by the end of August when I see Lawless and Cosmopolis. I'll be reviewing movies that are adaptations of literature. And probably some other things too, like comics and maybe even video games (you guys know how good films based on video games are, right?).

 So that's why I've been a little slow in updating this blog. If you weren't aware there are also adaptations of Anna Karenina and Les Miz forthcoming, so yeah, I've been snailing my way through both of those bricks. Along with Barthes' Image Music Text, for some ideas on how I can write my reviews. Barthes as applied Resident Evil: Retribution. It could work.

So in the future look for news of a new blog, or admission of my failure and laziness.

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