Love, Torment, Tragedy, Bootleg Whiskey, and Just a Bunch of Rough Old Boys
January 15, 2013
A double treat –a movie and a book. The book was originally called The Wettest County in the World, but when the movie came out as Lawless, the book was republished using the movie title. Memo to movie producers: It’s okay to do that to any one of my books. The action here takes place in the twenties and thirties. As many of you already know, this is an era that fascinates me, so I was eagerly looking forward to both the book and the movie.
Matt Bondurant, the author, based his novel on the lives of his uncles and grandfather. So it is a novel based on a true story. That’s the kind I write, so that made my anticipation even greater. It’s also about bootleggers, and as many of you know, purveyors of the movement of spirits played a big role in Go Down Looking.
My bootleggers were products of the forties that plied their trade in the fifties and through the seventies in Northeast Texas. They mostly peddled bottled liquor bought in wet counties and transported (usually across state lines) into dry counties. Some made and sold a little moonshine around here, but not many.
The Bondurant brothers distill their own liquor in hidden mountain stills in Franklin County, Virginia, and transport it across wooded mountain trails. They don’t call it moonshine, but usually refer to it as mule, white mule or corn.
As I got to know the Bondurants (Forrest, Howard and Jack) in the pages of the book, I thought of the Newton brothers, said to be the most successful bank and train robbers in history. Their escapades mostly took place during the period 1918-1924, but they were still going at in their dotage.
A movie, The Newton Boys, was made about them in 1998. In a documentary done when they were all old, one of the brothers described their lives thusly, “We were rough old boys.” The Bondurants were surely rough old boys, too.
Was my anticipation for Lawless rewarded? Yes and no.
Bondurant is a fine writer. His second book was made into a movie. None of mine have been, so what do I know? I write this review not as a writer, but as a reader. He chose to tell the story both directly and indirectly, using a technique I have seldom seen.
The story is told through the eyes of the brothers, but also through Sherwood Anderson, a real novelist, reporter and chronicler of the era. Anderson comes along after the major events of the book have taken place, primarily trying to tell the story of the Bondurants and a female bootlegger named Willie Carter Sharpe, who attained legendary status in Franklin County.
These chapters delve into the writings and the mind of Anderson, including his relationships with Faulkner and especially Hemingway who seems to have been a nemesis for Anderson. Hemingway seemed to be fond of chastising writers he deemed to be lesser (i.e. all other writers), using satire. Anderson bore the brunt of his ridicule at least twice.
It sounds fascinating on the surface, but I was disappointed when the author told me something in advance (through Sherwood Anderson) that I wanted to find out in later pages of the book. He doesn’t give away the plot totally, but the information provided is much stronger than typical foreshadowing.
The movie, wisely I think, omits any mention of Anderson, focusing instead on the story of the Bondurant brothers. And the story told by Bondurant is gritty and unforgiving, evoking comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. He cuts his ancestors little slack. But fear not, the book contains three love stories.
Here, I think the screenplay writers made a mistake. They left out the most tragic and heart-rending love story, the one involving Howard, choosing instead to focus on the loves in Jack’s and Forrest’s lives. They probably did this because Howard was already married when the story really begins, taking away the un-requited love aspect present with Jack and Forrest. But Howard’s tormented relationship with his wife and child is haunting.
Spoiler alert! I also was disappointed with the Willie Carter Sharpe character, a fast driving blockade runner woman with diamonds in her teeth. She sounded fascinating, but in the end, she is only discussed by Anderson and does not interact with the Bondurants.
My minor criticisms aside, this is a book and a movie I recommend. I expect Academy Award nominations for the movie and the book has already been named as one of the fifty best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Another review for Go Down Looking from Bill Thompson. Ainsworth is a truly gifted writer who brings his characters to life in a most believable and interesting way. He describes his books as “fiction based on true stories” and unveils his characters and plot lines in such a way that the reader cannot distinguish where the truth ends and the fiction begins, or vice-versa. I’m a devout Ainsworth fan, and find it hard to believe that we have not seen his novels transformed into screenplays and featured as made for television movies. Like most readers, I’ve already cast all the characters in my mind and can see their faces and hear their voices in Ainsworth’s prose. I highly recommend Go Down Looking and Jim’s other novels. If you haven’t read them, you are truly missing a wonderful experience.