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Secrets, Moonshine and Clannish Violence: The Novels of Matt Bondurant

by Jerome Weeks 29 Feb 2012 7:18 AM

UT-Dallas lit prof Matt Bondurant is the author of three novels, most recently The Night Swimmer, a gothic tale set in a remote Irish town. But it’s his previous novel set in a secretive, Virginia hill town that may gain him a wide readership. Chalk it up to moonshine and the movies.


Tom Hardy in the film adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s novel, The Wettest County in the World

Matt Bondurant writes novels about small, tightly-knit societies — like the secretive families in a creepy Irish town. Or a cult of Egyptologists. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that the UT-Dallas literature professor wrote about one such clan — a violent one — from his own family history.

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Matt Bondurant is sitting in a Dallas coffeehouse after a morning jog [ambient chatter and noise]. He’s written three novels, all of them different. Different subjects and locations, very different styles. Bondurant says all that difference can be a problem. He’s not building a loyal following from book to book.

Bondurant: “I don’t know if the publisher’s really happy about that. I don’t know what to do. It’s not like I’m choosing from a selection of, ‘Oh geez, what are all these different, interesting ideas that I have?’ I’ve had four ideas for novels in my life — the three I’ve written and the new one I’m working on. And that’s all I got.”

But a big following may be coming his way – anyway.

We’ll get to that, but to help us understand it when we do, first, this: Whatever else they have, all of Bondurant’s novels have elements of the thriller — mysteries, suspense, the hidden and the violent — but perhaps the most thriller-like is his first novel, The Third Translation. It concerns a mid-career Egyptologist, an American on a dwindling grant who’s desperately trying to decipher the real-life hieroglyphic puzzle known as the Stela of Paser — when he gets caught up in its theft. Bondurant wrote the novel while he was in graduate school in Florida State University and says he didn’t have thrillers so much on his mind as more literary and witty inspirations, like the novels of Martin Amis and Umberto Eco. One can see this in his arcane, antic story’s philosophical concerns about codes and languages.

But it was the thriller qualities that seem to have won over readers: When it was released seven years ago, The Third Translation became an international bestseller. Perhaps as a historical-cultural-decoding mystery, it rode The Da Vinci Code tidal wave. But that still doesn’t explain why it didn’t sell in America yet continues to sell well in  France.

Bondurant: “You know, I’d like to think the French are just astute, intelligent readers. They appreciate good writing [laughs]. I don’t know. … I think it’s because it makes fun of the English,  you know what I mean? The French like that.”

Bondurant’s most recent novel, The Night Swimmer, has earned strong reviews, especially for its lyrical language evoking the storming, frigid Atlantic and the remote, rocky southern coast of Ireland (reviews can be found here, here and here, for instance). It’s the gothic tale of a long-distance ocean swimmer, a young American woman who tangles with another of Bondurant’s reclusive bands — this time, the tight-lipped Irish families, many of whom are, yep, hiding secrets.

But The Night Swimmer came out only a few weeks ago. It’s too soon to tell if it’ll gain a wide readership.

It’s Bondurant’s second novel, from 2008, that’s most likely to take off this year. The Wettest County in the World is about the backhills moonshine wars in Virginia in the ‘30s. Bondurant’s story of brotherhood and revenge is drawn from court records, newspaper clippings – and Bondurant family lore. Three of the local bootleggers who were targeted for killing by corrupt law officers were the novelist’s own grandfather and two grand-uncles.

The Depression was a grim, hungry time for Franklin County, Virginia, and residents didn’t seem keen to hear more about white lightning and shootings up in the hollers.

Bondurant: “There was a little bit of uneasiness, sort of when the news of the project came out – because everybody was like, ‘Oh, what is this guy gonna do  — with our story?’”

Bondurant’s family came from the area, but he didn’t grow up there – only visited it often from Alexandria, Virginia. So he was viewed as an outsider — and felt like one. But what Bondurant did with this history was write a novel that was hailed from The New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle. The Wettest County was even compared to Cormac McCarthy’s writing in its grimly effective handling of cold-blooded violence: throat-cuttings, brass-knuckled beatings, car-racing ambushes.

Bondurant: “You know, my own father was kinda like, ‘Did you have to make him so, you know? Did you have to have so much …?’ And the answer is yes, I did.”

Even with rave reviews, The Wettest County sold only respectably — which is to be expected, Bondurant says, for a historical novel. There’s a layer of literary self-consciousness to it, too — another element that appears in all of Bondurant’s books (in The Night Swimmer, the husband tries to write a novel, while the wife reads
John Cheever). By happy coincidence, the Bondurant family’s square-off against the law was covered by newspapers at the time —  in part, by none other than Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio, mentor to both Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

Anderson was on the downhill side of his career in the early ’30s but had bought a newspaper company in Virginia and moved there as well, building a country home near Marion, Virginia. He covered the lengthy trial that later became known as The Great Moonshine Conspiracy of 1935. Bondurant is an admirer of Anderson, but what particularly attracted him to the author in this instance was that he, like Bondurant, was an outsider trying to write about the taciturn mountain folk. So Anderson appears in The Wettest County, struggling to get them to talk. As much as Bondurant’s novels are about secretive clans, they’re about outsiders: Many of his central characters are, essentially, fish out of water, trying to decipher or unlock a strange environment.

The Wettest County seems to have anticipated a small wave of renewed interest in the period and the region, in illegal stills and corn liquor. PBS broadcast the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition last year, while the Discovery Channel series, Moonshiners, recently wrapped up its first season, having sparked questions about whether its scenes with contemporary bootleggers were staged or not. Even The New York Times had a recent story about how home-brewing ‘micro-distilleries’ are now legal in one area of the Great Smoky Mountains.

I’ve sampled moonshine on occasion — courtesy of a brother-in-law who’s flown in from Tennessee with some. To my surprise, it was a smooth, sipping bourbon, a little warmer or ‘hotter’ than commercial brands but nothing like the harsh ‘mule kick’ of legend. In an afterword to The Wettest County, Bondurant (left) reports that one question he’s often asked by readers is whether he’s tried any corn liquor himself. He has and we compared notes on the ‘alternative beverage industry.’

Bondurant: “I’ve had some really awful stuff, and I’ve had stuff that, like you’re saying, I could sip it or put it on ice. The smell of it is kind of strong sometimes, that rotten-corn smell is like, Whoa, but then you sip it and it tastes like bourbon. I do like it, though, with fruit in it, with peaches and stuff. We had a jar of it for a long time and that’s always nice.”

Having anticipated the public’s rediscovered taste for illegal liquor, Bondurant’s novel is now coming back in what may prove to be a powerful, distilled form: The Wettest County has been made into a film with Gary Oldman, Shia Labeouf and Tom Hardy. Labeouf plays Jack Bondurant, Matt Bondurant’s grandfather, while Hardy plays Forrest Bondurant, his grand-uncle. The film — written by songwriter/screenwriter Nick Cave (The Proposition) — was originally set for release this spring but has now been held back until August. Normally, that’s a bad sign in Hollywood. But Bondurant says it’s good: The producers are waiting on The Dark Knight Rises, which opens July 20. The anticipation for Tom Hardy’s performance as the villain in that Batman movie has been so high, the producers of The Wettest County now hope to ride on his coattails.

Bondurant saw the British actor in Georgia, filming the bloody bar fight that triggers the open war in The Wettest County. Hardy’s performances in such earlier films as Warrior and Bronson have had a brooding ferocity, and Bondurant saw that in action on the set – in take after take.

Bondurant: “He was freaking me out, I mean, because he just turns on this rage and he’s flying really fast with these stunt men. And it’s, it’s … frightening.”

This year, Bondurant’s new novel, The Night Swimmer, or the film adaptation of The Wettest County may bring the UT-Dallas professor more readers. But he’s already had a public reading to remember – back in Franklin County, where he’d been viewed with some suspicion. Soon after the novel The Wettest County came out, he was invited to the Franklin County Historical Society.

The crowd was so large, he had to talk outside on the porch.

Bondurant: “There was over 200 people there. We only had 50 books. And we sold them all out and then another 150 people signed up and paid for a book that they’d have mailed to them later.

“I mean, that’s the best reading you’re ever gonna get.”