The Wettest County in the World

A year or two ago, I published a piece of fiction in The Saranac Review which alternated between traditional text and illustrated comic page. You can actually find a link on my “links” page to my post-publication interview with the editors, where I discuss some of my thoughts on mixed-media literature. The Fiction Editor of Saranac, though, is Matt Bondurant, and I just learned that his novel The Wettest County in the World is in production as a big-budget Hollywood film. Good for him. I’m hoping that the result is something that has all the style and complexity of other recent ’20s and ’30s-era crime films, from Public Enemies to Boardwalk Empire (and even the two-season series Carnivale).

But before the film comes out next year and makes a ton of money and everyone begins associating the story with the director’s style, not the original novelist’s style, here’s a quick look at the book itself.

Bondurant’s The Wettest County in the World is an amazing piece of work, part fact, part legend, part absolute fiction, but always strikingly honest. The book follows the Bondurant Brothers (the author’s grandparents) through an extremely violent and hypocritical time period in American history, Prohibition.

The brothers are bootleggers, and while the book delves into various conspiracies involving lawmen, and paints several bloody scenes of deliveries gone wrong, men shot, men beaten and bloodied, the most interesting moments of the novel are those when we focus on the very human conflict between brothers. Jack Bondurant, the youngest, is simply not cut out for this lifestyle, no matter how hard he tries to fit in with his older brothers, and every page on which Jack appears with either of his brothers, it makes for extremely tense (and extremely satisfying) reading.

While the story is fast-paced, intricate, and employs multiple chronological shifts (there’s a sub-plot, told from many years after the narrative moment, involving Sherwood Anderson attempting to learn the truth about the bootlegging conspiracy), Bondurant’s prose style is worth exploring here, also. He writes in a dusty and gritty prose that owes quite a bit to Cormac McCarthy, and while it’s beautiful and original and full of amazing imagery, all I kept thinking throughout was: So you really like Cormac McCarthy, huh? Bondurant doesn’t use quotation marks, and he utilizes the stylistic strategy of simply listing, in sentence fragments, many poetic details in a row (much like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy). Again, I thought the prose was rich and concise all at once, but sometimes feels like a borrowed style. This shouldn’t take away from the achievement of this book, but authors and readers alike know–whether fair or unfair–that certain Major American Authors have hoarded certain Interesting Stylistic Choices as their very own, and to use them yourself will inevitably beg the comparison. Any horror movie with a masked slasher will be compared to Halloween, after all; that doesn’t make Scream any less successful, but certainly we know that Scream owes much of its success to the masked killer films that came before.

The Wettest County of the World, though, is a fantastic little gem that (hopefully) gains renewed interest after its film adaptation, and is (hopefully) useful in catapulting Bondurant into the Barnes & Noble Buy-2-Paperbacks-and Get-1-Free big leagues.

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