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Book Review%97The Wettest County in the World

By Jennifer Reese

Part family history, part fiction, Matt Bondurant's somber, engrossing novel, The Wettest County in the World, patches together the legend of his paternal grandfather and uncles, a fearsome trio of bootleggers in rural Prohibition-era Virginia. He's wonderful at evoking historical atmosphere — the elaborate stills camouflaged in the woods,the music, the drunken gatherings that explode into shattering violence. %97Entertainment Weekly, 10-24-08

When your entire life is based on a theory that you’re indestructible, what else can you do but test it?

By Mark Athitakis

You have to go back to William Faulkner’s novels about the Snopes clan to find the kind of cold-blooded Southern amorality that drives Matt Bondurant’s second novel, The Wettest County in the World. Based on the lives of Bondurant’s grandfather Jack and granduncles Forrest and Howard, the story is set in Prohibition-era southern Virginia, where the three brothers manage a thriving moonshine trade. The business doesn’t get scrutinized too closely by the authorities because it "kept Franklin County relatively solvent and livable. And because they were afraid." With good reason: Early on Bondurant describes, in gruesome detail, Forrest getting his throat slashed, a moment that’s all the more fearsome because he survived it. Bondurant’s prose is thick with the kind of blood-soaked descriptions that would do Cormac McCarthy proud; halfway through, he need only invoke the words "table saw" to make you go pale. Yet Bondurant is too thoughtful and observant a writer to make this simply a redneck Grand Guignol, and the story gets some perspective and literary heft from its fictionalization of novelist Sherwood Anderson, who visited the region in the mid-’30s in the hopes of reviving his fading reputation. In an afterword, Bondurant explains the pains he went to to get the facts straight, but Forrest’s horrid scar is doing the metaphorical work that all good fiction does, gaining resonance with every near-miss that he survives: When your entire life is based on a theory that you’re indestructible, what else can you do but test it?

%97Washington City Paper

Moonshine Brings Misery to Virginia

By Lauren Bufferd

In the 1930s, Franklin County, Virginia, held a dubious distinction: nearly 100 percent of the population was illegally trading in liquor. Sherwood Anderson called it “the wettest section” of the United States, positing that even after Prohibition had ended, the moonshine continued to flow. These facts are the starting point for Matt Bondurant’s gritty novel based on the lives of his grandfather and great-uncles, who were notorious bootleggers in Franklin and who also testified in the county’s most infamous federal trial. For his fictionalized account, Bondurant listened to family stories and combed through archives, news clippings and court transcripts to get the details, but as he points out in the afterword, it was his job to explore the emotional truths behind the action. Bondurant imagines that the devastating loss of their mother and sisters in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had great impact on the Bondurant sons—Howard, Forrest and Jack—who within a decade had become active in the illicit manufacture and transporting of liquor. The novel’s action sweeps from a violent attack against Forrest in 1928 to an unsolved crime six years later when two men were hospitalized, one castrated, and the other with legs shattered from hip to ankle. The crime attracted the American writer Sherwood Anderson, who came to the area in hopes of writing an article about a mysterious female bootlegger and the upcoming federal trial. Stymied by the overwhelming silence of the community, Anderson took to the county roads, trying to find the Bondurant brothers and break the secrecy surrounding the violence. Bondurant has immersed himself in the sights, smells and sounds of rural Virginia, and the novel has almost a documentary feel. His rich descriptions of the county landscapes and the hardscrabble lives of its inhabitants invoke the small-town streets and struggling characters of Anderson’s best known novel, Winesburg, Ohio. At the same time, the action builds with the tension of a good thriller. One caveat to the more sensitive reader: The Wettest County in the World is extremely graphic, with multiple descriptions of physical injury, brutality and sadistic behavior. There are tender moments, however, all the more lovely for their infrequency. %97BookPage, October Advance Review

Matt Bondurant, The Wettest County in the World [Scribner]

Rating: 92

The Bloody Business of Corn What whiskey makes us remember

After 9/11, sages in the publishing world predicted a further decline in novel reading and an increased interest in nonfiction. The real world was too much for us, now, to fool around with fanciful, made-up stories. Sure enough, among storytelling books, the memoir reigned on high until several of the most successful turned out to be fiction. Or at least fictionalized versions of 'the truth.' Well, good. Fiction's probably a better medium for memoir anyway. Twain declared that Tom Sawyer was all 'true.' Wolfe didn't make much up, did he? My Antonia is an emotional autobiography of Willa Cather's youth. Then there's Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Matt Bondurant's second novel, The Wettest County in The World, openly and happily sits on the fence between these fields. Subtitled, A Novel Based on A True Story, it begins, "The brindled sow stood in the corner, glowering at the boy. Jack Bondurant hefted a bolt-action .22 rifle with a deep blue octagon barrel, the stock chewed and splintered from brush and river stone." Here you have, right away, the rich, flavorful detail, the authority of deeply involved witness, and the presence of Jack Bondurant, the author's grandfather, as the main character. And, of course, the direct, unblinking promise of bloody violence. Bondurant's grandfather and two grand-uncles ran illegal whiskey-white lightnin', moonshine (its makers just called it corn or whiskey)-out of Franklin County, Va., in the 1920s, and were known for the brutal enforcement of their independence and protection of their investments. Matt Bondurant recreates, or I should say largely imagines, the circumstances and events that led to a fatal confrontation between the Bondurant brothers and a corrupt local syndicate bent on controlling all the illegal hooch coming out of the county. In an afterword, Bondurant (The Third Translation, 2005) explains that, starting with family stories and historical record, including the transcript of a well-known trial, he essentially wrote "a parallel history" of these people from his family's past. He had to invent much of it, and says, "My intention was to reach that truth that lies beyond the poorly recorded and understood world of actualities." Jack Bondurant-whom the author knew only as an old, quiet man his family visited a few times each year -- comes alive here as an ambitious young fellow determined to escape his apparent fate as a poor tobacco farmer. Jack's brothers, Howard and Forrest, are complex, violent, taciturn men who, respectively, make and distribute whiskey, bringing Jack into the business when it's obvious he won't stay out. The Bondurant brothers are the crime bosses of Franklin County, until the local Commonwealth Attorney decides to horn in with corrupt lawmen as his enforcers. The ensuing conflict is bloody, murderous and inexorable. A cut throat, a castration, a body broken from head to toe, men shot at close range -- we can assume that these are not necessarily details Bondurant made up, but he recreates them vividly. It's not all grim, though. In one hilarious chapter, "Aunt Winnie" returns home early to find that her house and all its plumbing have been transformed into a still. One of the book's more curious elements is Bondurant's use of Sherwood Anderson, author of the iconic Winesburg, Ohio, as a character. Anderson, who moved to Virginia and bought a couple of local newspapers, provides a pensive outsider's perspective. In some of Bondurant's most wonderfully gloomy, lyrical prose, the author-turned-journalist ruminates on the grim economic forces behind such a booming illegal trade. "It was a never-ending battle to make do with what you already had," he writes, "and when things gave out they literally exploded into red dust." But the real heart of the book is Bondurant's grandfather, Jack, a sensitive young man ill-suited to the violent world of whiskey running, yet determined to escape from a Sisyphean life of back-breaking work with little or no material reward. He won't maim and murder for his reward, but he'll help his brothers do that, without apology. Watching a group of embittered old-timers, he thinks, "They only chew on the cud of their past. That'll never happen to me.... Not to me." It's a remarkable story, one that I suspect Matt Bondurant had to tell, and he's done it beautifully. %97PASTE Magazine, November Issue

Starred Review

This fictionalized tale of Depression-era bootlegging from Bondurant (The Third Translation) enlists the help of Winesburg, Ohio author Sherwood Anderson to investigate Bondurant family lore. In 1928, a pair of thieves accost Bondurant's real life great-uncle Forrest at his Franklin County, Va., restaurant. They're after a large cache of bootlegging money and end up cutting Forrest's throat. The story of his survival and his trek to a hospital 12 miles away has taken on mythical proportions by the time Sherwood Anderson arrives in Franklin County in 1934 to research a magazine piece on the area's prolific moonshiners. Soon after Anderson's arrival, two anonymous men appear at the same hospital, one with legs "meticulously shattered" from ankle to hip, the other one castrated, with the by-products of the deed deposited in a jar of moonshine. The arc of the story lies between the attack on Forrest and that on the two men. Bondurant endows his gritty story with all the puzzle-solving satisfactions of a mystery. It's a gripping, relentless tale, delivered in no-nonsense prose. (Oct.) %97Publishers Weekly, 6/9/2008

This family saga follows the Bondurants, bootlegging brothers runnin' stills, runnin' loads, and runnin' from the law in Depression-era Virginia. The book is mainly narrated through the experience of the youngest Bondurant, Jack (in truth, a grandfather of the author), and his family's moonshine enterprise supplies the action in a plot that evokes the culture of distilling and distributing white lightning. To optimistic Jack, bootlegging is both a bond to his older brothers, Forrest and Howard, and a means to make cash to impress a girl. Forrest, by contrast, is taciturn and suspicious: the world is violent, and he meets it on that ground. Tender of the stills and imbiber from same, burly Howard is always ready to take on the Bondurants' enemies, corrupt law officers. Wending through this conflict in flash-forward mode is novelist Sherwood Anderson, who plumbs the Bondurant story a few years after the brothers' climactic confrontation with the county sheriff. Descriptively gritty and emotionally resonant, novelist Bondurant dramatically projects the poverty and danger at the heart of the old-time bootlegging life. %97Booklist

THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD: A Novel Based on a True Story Hard-living bootleggers and crooked lawmen wrestle for control of the moonshine business in a fictional re-creation of the hard past of a lawless county. Drawing on his real life relatives and actual events, Bondurant (The Third Translation, 2005, etc.) sends past-his-prime author Sherwood Anderson into the hollows of western Virginia in the mid-1930s. Reduced to working for newspapers, the author of Winesburg, Ohio is there to report on the saga of the Bondurant brothers and their bloody defiance of corrupt attorney Charles Carter Lee. Anderson hopes to reclaim his place in the literary world with an accurate portrayal of these tough men. But no one will talk to an outsider about the bootlegging business or the series of shootings and knifings that continued to characterize Franklin County through the end of Prohibition and led ultimately to the longest criminal trial in the history of the Commonwealth. The Bondurants, like all the distillers in their mountain county, work in secrecy, carrying out their trade alongside legitimate businesses, eking out incomes shrunk to near nothing by the Great Depression. Sons of a law-abiding tradesman, the brothers were set on their shady paths by the sweeping forces of World War I and the epidemic of influenza that killed their mother and all but one of their sisters. Army veteran Howard, brainy Forrest and their admiring youngest brother, Jack Bondurant, took up the dangerous business of white lightning as reasonably—or unreasonably—as today’s ghetto youths take up drug dealing. What put them in mortal danger in an already dangerous business was not the roaming federal investigators but their refusal to join the cartel run by the county’s top legal figure. That they survived not only the warfare but massive doses of their own potent liquor is a testament to a kind of toughness that may no longer exist. Gritty, gripping depiction of very wild lives.

%97Kirkus Reviews

Interweaving the bleak portraits of Walker Evans, the charged landscapes of Annie Dillard, and the breakneck plotting of Cormac McCarthy, Matt Bondurant mines his own family history to offer a novel that's both a gritty, fast-paced tale of bootleggers and car chases and a timeless hard-knock ballad, a myth fixed in the amber of one small community's imagination. THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD is a suspense story dashed to tintype smithereens, each one a jewel.

%97Ellis Avery, author of THE TEAHOUSE FIRE

"Bondurant tells a distinctively American story. The gritty, suspenseful narrative gripped me and wouldn't let me go. It also touched my heart in all the right ways. Matt Bondurant's writing is as full of beauty as it is of verve and grit. Thank God it's legal to write so well." %97Lee Martin, author of River of Heaven and The Bright Forever

"Brilliantly conceived, and so close to home, this novel proves Matt Bondurant's burgeoning talent — a book for thirsty American readers to guzzle down, a book for all young American writers to admire." %97Alan Cheuse, author of The Fires

"In his scintillating new novel, Matt Bondurant explores a crucial period in the history of Virginia and of his family. His gorgeous, precise prose brings to life an amazing cast of characters, including Sherwood Anderson, and often deadly battles of Prohibition. The Wettest County in the World is a remarkable compelling, highly intelligent, and deeply moving novel." %97Margaret Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street and Eva Moves the Furniture