Based on childhood reminiscences, this debut memoir about a boy’s adventures in backwoods North Carolina as the son of a wealthy bootlegger in the 1960s and ’70s transcends mere tribute.
Opening with his father’s rise from rural poverty to near-feudal wealth as a moonshine bootlegger during Prohibition (and his subsequent control of thousands of acres near Clayton, N.C.), Sullivan’s memoir is as much a portrait of the rural, post-Reconstruction South as it’s a portrayal of the infamous bootleg king Percy Flowers or a boy’s awakening to an adult world. Rich in cultural and historical detail—e.g., Flowers was called “the most notorious moonshiner in all of the United States” by the Saturday Evening Post in 1958—Sullivan draws on recollection and research to vividly evoke his biological father and his own family life, including Curry, the author’s cuckolded father; Bea, his practical mother; and Reno, a canny, African-American bootlegger. These portraits are too cursory to rise to the level of great characters, but the details of time and place—the slaughter of hogs, the stoking of a whiskey still, the wood-fired curing using tobacco sticks—are often riveting. Sullivan has a keen eye for poignant irony—noting, for example, that Percy’s legitimate family line died out despite his lifelong devotion to perfecting the bloodlines of his hounds. Regrettably, clumsy structural devices undercut the book’s considerable strengths: The memoir is structured using a series of italicized letters by the author to his own two sons; the letters are intercut among roman chapters, and handwritten pull quotes from these letters are inserted like illustrations to highlight principle lessons he would have them learn (e.g., “With faith, you have a basis for belonging and a foundation for living”). These elements distract from the compelling story of Flowers’ rise and fall, as does frequent repetition of information.
Remarkable characters and rich historical details make this an illuminating portrait of a titanic man and a vanishing rural South.