The South is full of characters, and writer Alec Wilkinson has laid hold of an epic one in revenuer Garland Bunting.
Bunting, an alcohol control officer in Halifax County, N.C., is a backwoods personality worthy of Flannery O'Connor, an unlikely looking lawman bouncing around in a beat-up pickup with his coon dogs and hunting pals until, at the perfect moment, he craftily snaps his trap and turns another lawbreaker into sucker bait.
In this slender volume (the material also appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The New Yorker) Wilkinson sketches Bunting and his work. And, through his skills as a listener and observer, he offers an engaging glimpse of a rural southern culture that is too often merely parodied or burlesqued.
Rotund and balding, with "a paunch like a feedsack," Bunting is a nonstop tall-tale teller, a voluptuous eater, a wily and compulsive horse trader, a maverick free spirit who shuns doctors and once cured himself of Rocky Mountain spotted fever with medicine he kept for his dogs. He may be, to boot, "the most successful revenue agent in the history of a state that has always been enormously productive of moonshine."
Bunting has found liquor stills in swamps, hog pens, chicken houses, cornfields, living rooms and trailer trucks riding down the highway. He has dressed up like a woman, delivered sermons, peddled fish, buck danced, been a carnival barker and hauled logs at a sawmill -- all to outfox suspected moonshiners.
"The thing about all of this is," Bunting explains, "the other people always have to guess what I'm about, and I know what I'm up to."
What he's up to mostly is canny conversation. "Garland almost never stops talking," disarming his marks with what Wilkinson describes as "a random streak of nonsensical, scurrilous, imaginative, blustery, and occasionally poetic patter he calls 'trash.'
"Bootleggers unaware of who he is often like to have him around their outlets as a source of entertainment because it stimulates sales."
In the wrong hands, Bunting might appear a stereotypical "Dukes of Hazzard" yokel. But Wilkinson, a writer for The New Yorker, is no cheap literary carpetbagger. He minds his manners, throws himself into the action (getting an awful case of chigger bites while staking out a still), and delivers a profile that is colorful, respectful and warm.
His overview of the illegal whiskey business strikes me as thin, but he suggests that it is thriving. Though a boom period in the late '60s went sour when sugar prices soared, Bunting works 60- to 80-hour weeks and finds new stills regularly.
Stills are noisy and give off an odor described as "sometimes like a bakery and sometimes like a hogpen" and for these reasons, as well as the legal liabilities, they tend to be secreted deep in forests and ingeniously guarded. Bunting once found a bouquet of funeral-style flowers on a path leading to a still, along with a note saying, "Take warning, because if you come up here, you aren't coming back."
The product goes by many names, such as corn liquor, skull cracker, rotgut, panther's breath, red eye and blue john. Likely as not to be laced with lye, embalming fluid, Clorox or lead, it is typically sold at private drink houses after legal liquor stores close.
Policing liquor means tracking down the stills and making buys from the sellers, enterprises that are always risky.
"These folks are suspicious, and they'll kill you," Bunting says. "They'll shoot the grease right out of a biscuit and never even break the crust."
Moonshiners commonly get a pretty good press -- rugged nonconformists that they are -- and revenuers tend to be dismissed as strait-laced kill-joys. But Bunting, whose sleepy down-home facade masks the instincts and brains of a top detective, more than holds his own in the local-color department.
What is remarkable is Wilkinson's considerate sensitivity to the language, rhythms and habits of the life style behind the man.
He pays attention to such mainstays of southern life as the joy of eating. In this book, no one ever gets far from the table (pre-stakeout meals of fried chicken and banana cake; breakfasts of toast, pork chops, applesauce, home fries and eggs).
Whether at the supper table, along on a coon hunt or in the living room while Bunting's wife Colleen plays gospel music, Wilkinson is a careful listener and noticer, a pleasure to accompany on this brief storytelling trip into Dixie.