'The Wettest County in the World,' by Matt Bondurant

'The Wettest County in the World,' by Matt Bondurant

For those captivated by historical crime novels like Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist,' Matt Bondurant's 'The Wettest County in the World' is a grim but utterly engaging fable of bootlegging, revenge, and remorse that draws on his own kin. Set in Franklin County, Virginia, during Prohibition, the author follows his moonshining grandfather, Jack, and granduncles Howard and Forrest Bondurant through hard times. "The one thing my grandfather wanted during the Depression was a pair of new boots," Bondurant says. "He didn't have two dollars." It's a savage existence, and Bondurant captures it with disturbing precision, such as this description of the recipient of a punch with iron knuckles: "[He] lay quietly in the grass, his arms stretched out, still holding the razor, his mouth a gory hole. Jack could see bits of shattered teeth flecking his red lips."

Bondurant's decision to tell this history as a novel came "because the historical record was blank in many spots; no letters, no diaries." This allowed him to include as a character Winesburg, Ohio author Sherwood Anderson, who is in Franklin to investigate why a hospitalized man has legs that are "meticulously shattered, from ankle to hip" and another "is badly mutilated in the groin." Anderson adds a bittersweet counterpoint to the Bondurants; a successful man, he's gone places the trio can't comprehend, but also recognizes that progress has a price: "When the world is mechanized something goes out of men, something elemental is lost."

Anderson's and the Bondurants' stories gradually connect; in the process the author creates an unforgettable character in Forrest, who survives a slit throat ("Forrest felt the razor being drawn across his neck, a cold sensation like the line made by a piece of ice on skin"). Bondurant finds tenderness in this harsh world, even in descriptions of the 'shine itself: "A few ounces and even the hardest backwoods drinker…felt it deep in their bones, as if something sucked the marrow out and blew in white fire." In 2012, "The Road' director John Hillcoat's film version of the book, 'Lawless,' was released, virtually guaranteeing that Bondurant will be compared to Cormac McCarthy. It's warranted: Both have a gift for describing brutality so clearly that we see beauty in the honesty.