Polished essays edged with a tinder-dry wit on eight subcultures, some more or less suspect, of the American South, from Discover editor Bilger.
That a number of these subcultures even exist will be a surprise to many people: grabbing catfish out of hidey-holes, supping on squirrel brains, treeing raccoons in the night. But Bilger not only invests these activities with dignity; he makes sensible their place in the folkways of the South, how they evolved and why. Which in no way means these pastimes won't strike readers as crazy or absurd or dangerous. Take noodling for catfish, in which the participant shoves an arm into an underwater chamber, sight unseen, where, hopefully, an alert and aggressive catfish is guarding eggs. The idea is to insert your arm into the fish's mouth and pull it out of its den. Meanwhile, the fish is working on your arm like a rotary sander, that is if you haven't mistakenly introduced your arm into the hideaway of a snapping turtle or cottonmouth. Bilger's technique is to glom himself onto an expert of a tradition—a special game of marbles, farming frogs, cockfighting, white lightning—and follow attentively, all ears but also a hapless ("I learned about the American wilderness by reading James Fenimore Cooper in German") if willing participant in rural arcana that can bite, literally. Like those catfish, or contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from a simple dish of rodent: "He was putting some squirrel heads in the microwave for lunch, he remembers, when one of the guys mentioned the mad cow disease." Bilger gives each of his subjects solid background, takes pains to get to know his Virgils, and finely paints the landscapes, from the huddled hills of Dark Corners, South Carolina, moonshiners to the redbone coonhound precincts of Oklahoma's Kiamichi Mountains.
A dangerous work, capable of provoking readers into buying a frog farm.