by Alec Wilkinson, 1985
Captivating book about a revenuer in North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s, names Garland Bunting. He’s an ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) officer in Halifax County. He is fearless and talented and a brilliant strategist and tireless and a great actor and entertainer and lovable and friendly and a salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. He is willing to camp out in chigger-infested woods for days on end in order to capture his man. He is delightful and friendly and beloved by all, even the men he catches. The book is full of dialogue and action. I loved it.
The revenue agents considered moonshine a tax violation – if people are buying moonshine, they are not paying taxes on it, so if the stills are destroyed, then people will only be able to buy legal liquor, and taxes will be paid on it.
I learned about moonshine (yuck): “White liquor is clear in color. Some of it smells gamey, some like kerosene, some like a doctor’s office, and some has no scent at all. It is customarily in the neighborhood of one hundred proof, it tastes raw, and it is riddled with impurities. Recipes vary, but in North Carolina it is commonly made with corn meal, sugar, water, yeast and malt….Because corn meal is expensive, bootleggers often start their mash with scratch feed–that is, hog feed or chicken feed–which has corn meal in it….Some bootleggers add to the mash portions of urea or ammonium nitrate–chemical fertilizers–as catalysts….Alcohol in the mash leaches pitch from the pine, which makes the liquor smell and taste faintly of turpentine….To keep the mash warm, some bootleggers pack horse manure around the vat, or fill a pillowcase or burlap sack with manure and lower it into the vat. Some place a car battery in the bottom of the mash barrel, or punch holes in a can of lye and drop it in; when the water hits the lye the can heats up. While the mash is fermenting, the still is unattended and vulnerable. Agents watching a still they know to be bankrolled by a big-time bootlegger will sometimes sneak in and add a teaspoon of kerosene or a small amount of salt to the mash to prevent fermentation, in the hope of bringing the big man down to see what went wrong. Maggots spawn in mash. Rats, snakes, owls, possums, foxes, and other small creatures find their way to it and drink it and get drunk and fall in and drown. Sometimes the bootlegger puts his own wildlife in it to discourage mash hounds, alcoholics who discover the mash and sip it through reeds.”
Garland also loves to go coon-hunting. At one time, he had 18 coon dogs (when he was in high school) and his Mom made him get rid of some. He gave them away and told the people he gave them to that he would come back for them in a couple of weeks when it had blown over.
Garland is the reason this book is so fun. He’s the kind of guy you just want to be around. Alec Wilkinson, who was a reporter for The New Yorker, describes him so well, you are there with them.
Loved this book. It was recommended by the Book-A-Day calendar. Here is what they said about it:
“Alec Wilkinson’s Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor is the true chronicle of revenuer Garland Bunting, of Halifax County, North Carolina, who, for more than three decades, pursued bootleggers and moonshiners into and out of the damnedest places. Wilkinson spent many days in the company of the irrepressible Mr. Bunting, uncovering illegal stills, cornering racoons, and just sitting around talking. the result is a diverting portrait of a character and a place you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else–unless you distill your own.”