Saturday, October 25, 2008

Franklin County Gothic

Matt Bondurant has turned his own family's stories into a violent and dark novel, "The Wettest County in the World."

A Franklin County family with their still, circa 1930s.

Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College

A Franklin County family with their still, circa 1930s.

Franklin County moonshiners, circa 1930s.

Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College

Franklin County moonshiners, circa 1930s.

The Wettest County in the World book


If you go

  • What: Matt Bondurant, author of "The Wettest County in the World," will be in Rocky Mount as part of the "Author on the Porch" event. A demonstration whiskey still and 1930s-era cars will be showcased.
  • When: 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Franklin County Historical Society, 460 S. Main St., Rocky Mount
  • Contact: 483-1890
Jack Bondurant flung his hands in the air, showing the deputy he wasn’t reaching for a gun.

The deputy fired his pistol anyway. Jack spun away and never heard the shot, just the echo as it reverberated down the hollow. The bullet struck him under his arm and dropped him in the snow. Jack’s brother ran toward the deputy, pistol drawn. The deputy dropped to a knee and fired and, in a flash, two

Bondurant boys lay bleeding on the snow-covered Franklin County clay.

That’s the way Matt Bondurant tells it, anyway.

That scene is from Bondurant’s new novel, “The Wettest County in the World” (Scribner), a fictional account of a very real time — the days of Prohibition, bootleg whiskey, corrupt lawmen and the infamous “Great Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy” trial of 1935.

The book’s cover features Matt Bondurant’s grandfather Jack — the same Jack of the aforementioned shootout scene — pictured just above the words “A Novel Based On A True Story.” That story is one the younger Bondurant only learned about in recent years: The tale of how his grandfather and great-uncles made white lightning in the late 1920s and early ’30s and how they fought the authorities who wanted to shake them down and skim the brothers’ whiskey profits.

Bondurant, 37, whose first novel “The Third Translation” appeared in 2003, calls his fictional account a “parallel history. It’s a small part of the puzzle.” He writes about real places, real events and even real people in crafting his fictionalized version of what transpired in the Franklin County backwoods during the waning days of Prohibition and the onset of the Great Depression.

The book has already earned stellar reviews. A lengthy review at, summarized “The Wettest County in the World” as a “lyrical and riveting book …  a book that hurts like life.”

Paste magazine awarded the book a score of 92 — which rates as “phenomenal” on the magazine’s scale. Reviews in Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone are  expected soon. According to Hollywood publications, Columbia Pictures and Red Wagon Productions are already planning a movie adaptation and have assigned director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition”) to the project. Legendary Australian punk rocker/actor/writer Nick Cave is working on a screenplay, Bondurant said.

The glowing national reviews are nice, he said, but, “The Franklin County review is very important to me.” He’ll get the early reviews on Sunday , when he is the featured speaker during “Author on the Porch” at the Franklin County Historical Society in Rocky Mount.

“This is all quite exciting,” said Linda Stanley, the historical society’s special projects coordinator. “It’s a very interesting book. Even though it’s a novel, it talks about stuff that people remember here.”

Like the county’s own “Moonshine Express” tours that take visitors to the places that made Franklin “the wettest county in the world,” the novel is the latest project that links modern-day Franklin County with its illicit, bootlegging past.

“Any publicity is good publicity,” Stanley said.

Even though Bondurant’s family roots are well-established in Franklin County, he grew up in Northern Virginia. His father — Andrew Jackson Bondurant Jr. — left the Franklin County village of Snow Creek on the eve of the Korean War. Jack Jr. and a buddy flipped a coin to determine whether they’d join the Army or the Navy. The Navy won.

After the war, Jack Bondurant Jr. earned an engineering degree from Virginia Tech, a master’s from Syracuse University, and went to work for the federal government. He knew that his father had been a bootlegger in his younger days, but not even the son knew the story of that fateful snowy day in 1930 when his father and uncle were gunned down by a deputy.

“My grandfather was not an angel,” Matt Bondurant said in a telephone interview from Plattsburgh, N.Y., where he lives and works as a college English professor. But it wasn’t until after his grandfather died in 2000 “that my father became aware of the enormity of the whole thing. My father is an amateur genealogist, he’s interested in our family tree and all of that, and he located articles about the shooting in the 1930s’ Roanoke Times.”

That research led father and son on numerous fact-finding missions to Franklin County. They turned to the historical society, read old newspaper accounts and interviewed people who still remembered where the 1930 shooting occurred.

Matt Bondurant is indebted to the work done by the late Keister Greer, a longtime Rocky Mount attorney whose nearly 1,000-page opus, “The Great Moonshine Conspiracy Trial of 1935,” provided Bondurant with court transcripts and other copious materials on which to build his characters and scenes.
“Keister Greer’s book was kind of the final piece of information that made the project seem viable,” Bondurant said. “He had the timeline, a lot of information, the characters themselves speaking …  things people actually said. That gave shape to the characters. There’s no recording of them. I never heard these guys when they were alive. So, Keister Greer’s book was the last piece we needed.”

Greer died in May at age 86. He is the first person mentioned in Bondurant’s acknowledgements.

The research enabled Bondurant to hang fictional flesh onto very real bones, a literary device that keeps the narrative percolating, but at the same time gives Bondurant a bit of concern. He breathes life into not only the characters of his grandfather and great-uncles, but also into longtime Commonwealth’s Attorney Carter Lee, numerous lawmen and bootleggers.

Even the writer Sherwood Anderson is a major character in the novel. Anderson had moved to  Southwest Virginia to become a small-town newspaperman, and he covered the conspiracy trial for the Chicago-based publication, Liberty Magazine, for which he wrote the famous passage:

“What is the wettest section in the U.S.A., the place where during Prohibition, and since, the most illicit liquor has been made? The extreme wet spot, per number of people, isn’t New York or Chicago …  the spot that fairly dripped illicit liquor, and kept right on dripping it after prohibition is Franklin County, Virginia.”

Is Bondurant worried what the locals might think of his depiction of their ancestors? Maybe a little.

“I don’t want to make the descendants feel like I’m trying to pin something on a relative,” he said. “This is a novel. I am bound by the rules of fiction. …  I just want to keep it interesting and exciting.”

Mission accomplished. The book tears off on a violent course from the outset, spinning its Southern Gothic tale with splatterings of blood and a little sex. There’s a hog-killing, a throat-slashing, an implied rape, numerous beatdowns and gratuitous drunkenness — all in the first 50 pages.

Bondurant has earned comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, a novelist famous for his dark, violent stories. “The Wettest County in the World” is as densely layered and brooding as a Faulkner story — another comparison Bondurant has heard — weaving together different storylines across a plot that skips backward and forward over a span of a few years. If anything, the book plays out like a Blue Ridge version of “The Godfather,” a tale of a family trying to run an illegal business, steer clear of the law and stay alive.

Despite his book’s violence and dark tone, Bondurant has nothing but precious memories of his family visits to Franklin County. Here, the city boy got to ride in pickup trucks and pull tobacco, “which kind of sucked,” he said. He drove a tractor with his grandfather, who lived to be 90. Bondurant’s grandmother Bertha, also a character in the book, died in 1990. Bondurant remembers them well and fondly.

“He was kind of a rascal,” Bondurant said of his grandfather. “Even older, he was prone to be a renegade, feared by the grandchildren. He was a solid, patriarchal figure. He commanded respect. He was a guy you didn’t mess with.”

Read the book and you’ll see why.

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