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Great Material, Not So Great Presentation
on November 20, 2008
During Prohibition and beyond, Forrest, Howard, and Jack Bondurant (the author's great-uncles and grandfather) decided that one way to keep their families going through the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and a crippling drought was to found a moonshine dynasty. The infamous Bondurant brothers were major bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia, which Sherwood Anderson, covering a story there, called "the wettest county in the world."
Although the material that Bondurant has to work with reflects a fascinating period in America's history, I found his presentation of it somewhat dry (no pun intended!) and often confusing. He chooses to use a straightforward prose style that minimizes punctuation; for example, quotation marks are eliminated altogether and commas nearly so. This style can be intrusive even in the best writers' hands (Cormac McCarthy comes to mind). There is, after all, good reason why punctuation was standardized to begin with: Remember your primary teachers telling you that it is meant to help the reader? It's true, for this reader at least.
Also, the novel jumps around in time, from 1918 to 1934 to 1928 to 1929 and again to 1934, back to 1919 then to 1930, and so on. To a limited extent, this approach helps pique the reader's interest, as when, for instance, we meet two of the Bondurants' competitors in the hospital, appallingly mutilated, while in the reader's mind the Bondurants are still just simple farming folk. Because the timeframe moves so frequently and randomly, though, the reader finds himself often disoriented and struggling to piece together the story. I repeatedly had to flip back to check what year it was and work out whether some earlier event was part of the foundation for what was happening now or whether it hadn't occurred yet.
Sherwood Anderson serves as a sort-of narrator, staying in Franklin County to do research to write about what was happening there. For the most part, this helps the novel, bringing to it an unenlightened point of view that parallels the reader's own. However, the frequent references to Anderson's testy relationship with other authors of his time, the building of his new house, and other details of his life outside of Franklin County add needless minutiae for the reader to sort through and allocate to their places in the story; ultimately, they have none, and seem to be mostly just an English major showing off.
I had a difficult time getting to know and care about the book's characters, at least partly because of the effort it took just to follow their stories. It wasn't until nearly the end of the book that it began to matter to me how any of it turned out. One of the parts I liked best was the brief author's note at the end, because by then I finally knew everyone and was interested in what had become of them. I wish the author had made this happen much earlier.