The Wettest County in the World is a novel–No, a memoir. No, a true crime story. Matt Bondurant novelizes his own family’s history in Franklin County, Virginia, focusing on the exploits of three moonshining brothers–Forrest, Howard, and Jack–and their involvement in what is known as “The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy.” Within that conspiracy is a shootout at a bridge over Magoddee Creek that involved the moonshiners on a run and law enforcement officials who were every bit as crooked as the illegal distillers themselves. Moreso, perhaps. It was that incident that led to the sensational trial that attracted national attention in 1935.
The story begins in 1918 with an attack of the “Spanish Lady Flu” (Spanish Flu I know, but never before heard it called “Spanish Lady.”) which kills the Bondurant mother and two children, causing the father to declare that “All the goodness has gone out of the world.” Whether this disaster indeed sends Jack, Howard, and Forrest into a mental and emotional state that results into their illegal distilling as Bondurant seems to suggest, seems debatable. What isn’t debatable is the can’t-stop quality of this novel, so full of unique characters in a setting seldom treated in American fiction
Forrest is the steady Bondurant brother, the leader and organizer of the enterprise, owning and operating sales and distribution through, first, a cafe, then a gas station. He’s almost a mythical figure, having had his throat cut during a robbery of the cafe, then pinching the edges of the wound together while walking twelve miles through the midnight snow to the nearest emergency room. Middle brother Howard is a man of great physical strength and grand dreams who can’t stay away from his own product. The result is that he neglects wife and children and fouls up many a scheme. Younger Jack is the personality man with no sticking power. He drifts from dream to dream, spends his windfall money on fancy clothes and cars and somehow ends up married to a “Dunkard,” a woman from a faith closely related in doctrine and living arrangements to Amish or Mennonites.
Bondurant adds texture and complexity to the book by introducing into the mix the writer Sherwood Anderson, who had in real life come to do a piece on the activities of rural moonshining some time before the core incidents happen. Anderson’s musings provide a look at the people and events from both a literary and a national perspective. He wonders about his reputation as a writer, about his personal and literary relationships with the likes of Faulkner and Hemingway, about his legacy via Winesburg, Ohio, a work that made his reputation, yet pigeonholed him as a chronicler of Midwest small town America. Undoubtedly, the difficulties Anderson has in getting the residents of Franklin County to open up to him mirror some of the obstacles Bondurant himself encountered as an out-of-towner trying to get information even about his own family.
One additional element that I believe sometimes gets Bondurant in trouble is his occasional journey into the first person. At that point, he crosses the line from novelist to memoirist, and I even wondered sometimes if the voice was his or Sherwood Anderson’s. The device often works, but too often doesn’t.
Overall, though, a minor complaint in the context of a book as wonderfully lively and gritty and real and unusual as The Wettest County In the World. It and its author will surely be contenders for the Writerworking discovery of 2014.