Magazine article The New Yorker

Moonshine Kingdom

Magazine article The New Yorker

Moonshine Kingdom

Article excerpt

As a boy, during summer visits to his grandfather's house in southwest Virginia, Matt Bondurant was drawn to the rusty object that hung beneath the gun rack: a set of brass knuckles. He'd stand on a chair to touch them, imagining how it would be--If you are still alive when I run out of bullets, I will pull this hunk of metal off the wall and pummel you into unconsciousness--but never daring to slip them on. "They scared me," Bondurant said recently, over a glass of corn whiskey at a Manhattan restaurant called the Tipsy Parson. "My grandfather was the kind of guy you didn't mess with."

The Bondurants were ornery giants; Matt, who is six feet two, was picked on by his cousins as the runt. Though Bondurant's father had moved away from hardscrabble Franklin County and Bondurant grew up "citified," as he puts it, he was fascinated by the knobby roots of the family tree, and in 2008 he published a historical novel, "The Wettest County in the World." It is the Depression-era tale of how the Bondurant Boys--Bondurant's grandfather, Andrew Jackson Bondurant, known as Jack, and Jack's older brothers Forrest and Howard--ran moonshine and beat the bejeezus out of everyone with those brass knuckles. And now the novel has become a movie, "Lawless," which opens next week.

Bondurant, a bespectacled forty-one-year-old who often touches his fingertips to his shaved head, as if to mold an emerging thought, said that he'd had few hard facts to go on, aside from some grand-jury transcripts and a couple of Walker Evans-style photographs. "In my family, you exchange pleasantries about the weather and the tobacco crop," he explained. "When my dad found some newspaper articles, twenty years ago, about how Jack and Forrest were both shot at the Maggodee Creek Bridge, he was shocked. When he asked Grandpa Jack about it, he just shrugged and showed him the bullet holes under here"--Bondurant indicated the armpit of his green polo shirt--"and that was about it. He died soon after."

Seeking a way in, Bondurant asked his father, "What does an eighteen-year-old in Franklin County in 1930 want?" He was told, "The same things they want now: they want a car, they want clothes, they want a girl, they want to be feared." Fear was the cayenne in that otherwise familiar stew. …

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