LAWLESS by Matt Bondurant
Some people have all the luck: they have fathers, grandfathers, uncles, all of whom have a back-story, something to talk about down the years, something out of which a writer can make a really good story.
Not me. I seem to have come from an endless line of people who didn’t raise the dust, didn’t make a headline. Except once, when I was about eight, and I heard my mother and father talking. My father was in trouble with the police. It was in the papers. He had been fined 5 shillings for a parking offence. That and my three speeding offences – and oh yes, a careless driving – is all we seem to have amassed as a family. Not much story in any of that.
Yet Matt Bondurant got a hint when he was into middle age that there was a story, something about his family. And though, save for newspapers, the documentary evidence was thin and the majority of those alive in the 1920s and 1930s had either passed on or forgotten the events of the time, he has managed to squeeze out a narrative from what he can find. And where there’s nothing, he’s added his own interpretation, and has made a novel out of the rags and tatters of his own family’s history. His grandfather and his two great uncles are the major figures in this violent tale.
‘Lawless’ is a story about Prohibition and its companion the Great Depression. We know all about Prohibition from all the gangster stories that have been written or filmed: we know about Capone and the Mob in all the great cities.
But at this time, over in Virginia, in a poverty stricken rural landscape where perhaps for all time past there had been a Great Depression, up in the mountain valleys with their cold running springs, the illicit manufacture of ‘moonshine’ – whisky from the grain, brandy from the fruit - which had gone on for perhaps a hundred years, perhaps even longer, now blossomed into a major industry though it continued to be manufactured in quite simple fashion.
And like many other farming folk, the Bondurant boys, Forrest the eldest, Howard, returned from the war, and young Jack, have stills running and they’re producing White Lightning or White Mule Moon or Stump Whisky or Mountain Dew or Squirrel Whisky – or maybe all of them at one time.
But there is great money involved in all of this - there is a suggestion that ninety per cent of families in Franklin County were in some way involved in the trade – so that now senior officers in the local county administration – the County Attorney and the Sheriff - decide to have their share of it, imposing a tax on the stills, demanding a tax for the shipment of the liquor, destroying the stills of non-payers and relentlessly pursuing those shipping their wares. Ruthless? Men are shot, beaten, emasculated, their testicles placed in a jar. Decidedly ruthless.
Some have objected that the story line is obscure at times when the author hops from one year to another. True. You have to concentrate. And some are unhappy about the intrusion of the writer Sherwood Anderson into the story’s flow. He came down to Franklin County in 1934 to find out about what was then known as The Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy. I’m sympathetic to a degree with these critics.
Yet I cannot deny that this may some day come to be regarded as a great novel. The reader has a lot of work to do. He cannot easily skim Mr Bondurant’s narrative. He needs to take time, to ponder it and enjoy its lyrical qualities which so uplift this book. Descriptions of newly distilled liquor; of the workings of a rural sawmill; of a frost-wrinkled land; of whole tobacco drills wilting in a savage summer heat; of lean men and women, poor but stoical – all of these elegantly expressed images, make for a book to return to.
I greatly admire ’Lawless.’