Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Whiskey Wednesday: Whiskey Reads -- The Wettest County in the World

Well, Anderson said, where I come from we don't have cars full of liquor blasting through the town square every night with women at the wheel, men getting castrated and their testicles delivered to them in the hospital, and nobody seems to care or say anything about it.

A fictionalized Sherwood Anderson,
The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

Rum-running, bootlegging, whiskey trafficking...it's the stuff of legend and tall tales. For writer, Matt Bondurant, it's also the stuff of family history. He comes from a line of notorious bootleggers, and his second novel is a fictionalized account of his grandfather's experience as part of one of the most notorious bootlegging operations in prohibition era Virginia.

The story, which alternates between two time periods in a sort of before and after chronology, is centered on a trio of brothers who ran illicit hooch out of Franklin County, Virginia in the latter days of prohibition. In the later time period, a late-career Sherwood Anderson investigates and reports on their plight and a resulting corruption trial.

Bondurant is a fine storyteller who understands the beauty of men (and the book is certainly oriented toward men) and their dedication to their craft, be it the Bondurant brothers and their hooch or Anderson and his writing. There is plenty of Prohibition era action, including a car chase finale worthy of the sliver screen, mysterious beatings and shootings and, as noted above, at least one castration, but the work is also a study of how people perceive themselves, of the weight of personal insecurity and of the importance of myth and legend in storytelling.

Whiskey, or spirits in general, are really secondary to the story. The brothers make everything from rotgut, to corn whiskey to what they claim is the best apple brandy around. There are a few quite lyrical descriptions of distilling and of the purity or lack thereof of various products, but overall, the hooch (which can go by names as colorful as popskull and sugarhead) while important, is less the focus of the story than the hooch-trade.

In the end, the one thing I was left with was the sense that moonshining was hard work. Shiners were in constant movement and on a near-constant run from the law, from unethical officials seeking bribes, from the competition, and from the perils of nature and the economy. Far from being lone-wolves, Bondurant's covert distillers feel at once trapped in their lives but also very much adjusted such that they've accepted the inherent normality of their situations. They are much more similar to how we might view young drug dealers today than the romanticized notion of outlaw rum-runners.

If you are interested in this era or just an entertaining read, check it out.

Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World, Scribner, $25.00.

Thanks to Scribner for sending me a copy.

No comments: