I had high hopes for this book. I haven’t seen Lawless (despite being so in love with Tom Hardy it keeps me awake at night), but liked the thought of a true story about boot-legging brothers during the prohibition, and it was in the Kindle spring sale. Sadly, I was to be disappointed. I knew I was in trouble straight away when I saw that this was the kind of book that’s too edgy to use speech marks.
The boot-legging Bondurants are three brothers trying to earn a living running liquor in 1920s and 30s Virginia. The third person narrative shifts between their story from 1928 onwards, and the experience of (real-life) writer Sherwood Anderson as he tries to put meat to the bones of the Bondurant legend in 1934. This is a confusing and unnecessary device, which isn’t helped by the lack of dating of some chapters. I imagine it was supposed to build some kind of tension, putting the brothers on a collision course with corrupt law enforcement. It really doesn’t work.
The brothers are one-dimensional characters at best. Jack is a coward who shies away from bloody work on their father’s farm, while the intense Forrest plays with carvings his grandfather made of mutilated Confederate soldiers. They’re hard-drinking tough men, who of course have fantastically beautiful women in love with them. Forrest has his throat cut, is shot and crushed in a logging accident and still he refuses to die, like a hill billy Rasputin.
The writing is clumsy and awkward. At one point Bondurant Senior is described as ‘grinning through his beard’ twice in three pages, at another the tense shifts from present to past in the course of one sentence. The most frustrating thing is that when Bondurant writes in his own voice in the Author’s Note, his style is simple and direct. When he’s not trying (and failing) to be John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy’s bastard love child, his voice is alright. It’s a shame he tried so hard. At one point in the novel, a character’s attention starts to wander, I can only sympathise.