Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Wettest County in the World (Lawless)

The Wettest County in the World: A Novel Based on a True Story by Matt Bondurant

I downloaded the audiobook from the public libary's OverDrive service.

My review:

This is the book upon which the movie Lawless is based, and the book has actually been re-released under that title. Three brothers run moonshine in southern Virginia during the later years of Prohibition and as the country grinds into the Great Depression. The Bondurant brothers are three young men with very different personalities but with a fierce family loyalty and a determination to live their lives on their own terms.

I may have enjoyed this one more if I had read it myself instead of listening to the audio version. Erik Steele does a fine job with the reading, but the book switches back and forth between two parallel chronologies and I had a hard time knowing "when" we were for the first half or so of the book. One timeline follows the Bondurants from childhood up through the height of their notoriety, and the other is more tightly clustered in the mid-30s, when an Ohio journalist is trying to dig up what happened between the Bondurant boys and the county law a few years earlier. The Bondurants don't make significant personal appearances in the latter timeline, but they are mentioned constantly and almost all of the secondary characters are there. Because of this, it actually took me quite a while to sort out what the author was doing and which brother was which. I think it would have been more apparent to me if I had seen the dates and names on a page and been able to flip back and forth a little.

The brothers were interesting characters who grew more compelling and sympathetic as the book progressed. The setting depicted also fascinated me; while western Pennsylvania had our Whiskey Rebellion quite a while before Prohibition, there is some shared mountain culture there. Still, the author could have strengthened the work by dropping the Sherwood Anderson story line and focusing instead on the mounting tension between the Bondurants and the law. The "big showdown" didn't have the emotional impact on me that it easily could have, probably because too much information about its aftermath had already been revealed throughout the Anderson parts of the book.

Stars: 3

Runability: 3

I haven't seen the movie Lawless yet, but if it comes to Netflix I will definitely give it a watch. The story and characters in the book were strong; the execution was just a little scattershot. Novels have to be tightened up for depiction on-screen, anyway, and I'm guessing that in the case of this book/movie combination it probably works to the movie's advantage.

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