Book Review – The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

A few months back I saw the film Lawless in the theaters and found it to be a pretty good bit of cinema. Director John Hillcoat adapted that film from a novel entitled The Wettest County in the World, and while I had wanted to read the book prior to seeing the film, I was unable to obtain a copy in an orderly fashion and so I went into the theater with nothing to stack the film up against. A few months later I found a copy of the book in a clearance section of the bookstore and I picked it up with eager arms. I had heard the book would appeal to my sensibilities rather well, with the prose style being similar to the lyrical writings of Cormac McCarthy. My favorite novel, if pressed, would probably be Blood Meridian so this was a welcome revelation.

The style is indeed similar, with a lack of quotation to denote the speaking of characters and a muted description of whirlwind violence that treats the flowing of blood and the loss of life with such triviality that it can oftentimes leave the bones of the reader chilled. Stylistically speaking it helps to reaffirm the time period of the novel. It feels folksy. It feels as if you are hearing a story told from the mouths of disenfranchised southern folk living in depression era Virginia. The book itself is very well written. The narrative is framed around writer Sherwood Anderson’s visit to Franklin county to find the story of the bootlegging blockaders called the Bondurant Brothers, ancestors of the writer himself. What is fact and what is fiction here is explained by the author in the afterword, but the legitimacy of the tale isn’t really an issue. Truth or fabrication, the story is a compelling tale. The dialog is minimal and instead we get flighty lyrical descriptions of a bygone time swathed in the red hues of blood violence. While the framing device may lead some readers down a path of confusion, the story moves forward in a carefully constructed pattern that builds up steam to a thrilling conclusion bookended by a somber and melancholy connection to the portions framing the story being told.

I feel like I have to compare it to the filmed version and for those wondering there are considerable differences. Characters in the film are given a little more to work with, extrapolated from the guarded and mysterious depiction that they have in the novel. Some parts are amalgamated or twisted for the sake of drama but I will say that the understated simplicity of the novel feels more genuine while the film played with that tone while miring itself in the melodramatic theatricality of some of the actors present. In the film, only Tom Hardy and perhaps Gary Oldman felt like they belonged. Everyone else was adapting something else entirely.

Put simply, this is an amazing novel that tests people’s expectations and rewards them with something exceptional. I’m sure I will give it another read sometime down the line.


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