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Monday, Oct. 13, 2008

Chasing White Lightning

Illicit highs in mountain country

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Those who made the illicit liquor called it white mule, white lightning, popskull, mountain licka, mountain dew, stump whiskey and-at the low end of the illegal-spirits chain-rotgut, but never moonshine, and they called themselves blockaders, not bootleggers. Matt Bondurant's novel The WettestCounty in the World (Scribner) offers many curious facts in the course of delivering an immensely interesting story.

The county is Franklin, in southwestern Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains, during the first four decades of the last century. It got the "wettest" sobriquet from writer Sherwood Anderson, who in researching an article ("The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy") on the notorious female bootlegger Willie Carter Sharpe for Liberty magazine in 1934 found that the county "fairly dripped illicit liquor."

Andersonis not the only true-life element in Bondurant's second novel (after The Third Translation). It is based on the history of the author's own family, specifically the exploits of his grandfather Jack Bondurant and Jack's two older brothers, Forrest and Howard Bondurant. If those exploits were largely illegal, so were those of the officers of the law who ferociously pursued them in a barefaced effort to get a cut of the profits.

The author depicts his forebears as the "terminally poor." He catches the dull menace of the hills and its people's sullen contempt for outsiders, their stoic endurance and "masterful silence."

The novel is soaked in liquor; making and drinking it comprise a way of life as well as a livelihood. There seems no end to the ways of making liquor, including with the radiator of a rusted-out Model T Ford. One ingenious, or perhaps just goofy, fellow devises a storage system for the stuff using the primitive plumbing in his aunt's house; it works pretty well until the aunt comes home.

Their lives are also soaked in violence and brutality, usually connected with the liquor-making. When the powers that be-the sheriff and state officials-beat up Jack as a signal that they want a cut of the business, Forrest tells Jack he has to seek revenge. "'We control the fear,' Forrest said. 'You understand? Without the fear, we are all as good as dead.'"

Fear abounds on all sides. After a man is castrated, the byproduct of the assault is placed in a jar of moonshine and delivered to the hospital in which he lies. All three brothers survive terrible attacks. Later, Jack is shot. Someone cuts Forrest's throat from ear to ear; someone else arranges for a truckload of logs to spill out and crush him.

Unfortunately, this powerful story is undercut by sloppy writing. There are numerous grammatical errors; it is possible Bondurant means them to reflect the language of his characters, but the context does not support that interpretation.

His style also tends toward overuse of sentences composed of one dependent clause or gerund phrase after another, hooked together by a string of commas: "The three men sat by the fire splitting off the jar, wordless, the first sip like hot ash and then the rest strangely cool, like a refreshing drink from a spring, the three of them staring into the glowing coals, their numb throats working convulsively."

I suppose it's an efficient way of conveying information, but after a while the sameness begins to stick out like an inflamed thumb.

That aside, this is a good story that is told well, right through the 1935 trial at which the brothers testified and the epilogue that summarizes their more peaceful later years. The Sherwood Anderson chapters are especially effective; besides telling what Anderson did, and in the process moving the Bondurant saga forward, they are an intelligent meditation on an increasingly forgotten writer and his contribution to American literature.