Sunday, June 11, 2006

Burkhard Bilger

The other day I had a distinct craving for some comfort reading. Oh, you know the kind, the sort of reading that allows you to immerse yourself in sweetly delicious words and phrases and metaphors, sinking deep into your couch and out of the world. I went through my personal library and, as usual, had trouble in that department - the vast majority of my books are on history, politics, philosophy, geography, paleontology, evolutionary theory, or are art history books. What fiction I have is largely dominated by political commentary (Swift's Gulliver's Travels or Orwell's 1984 for instance) or American pseudo-romantic works (Mark Twain and Hemmingway, in particular) all of which is more likely to stimulate rather than relieve the state known as "funk." Then I came upon a book I had purchased in a bookstore on the Isle of Man (in the Irish Sea) years ago. Its name? Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts: Travels in the American South.
Before I go on to tell you about Mr. Bilger's fantastic book, I want to point out that it's name in these Glorious United States of America is, in point of fact, something different: Noodling For Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish and Other Southern Comforts. Nothing dramatic, but if you're looking for it in the bookstore round the States, well, you're gonna' wanta' know.
Man sakes, this is a fine piece of esoterica. Mr. Bilgers, originally an Oklahoma boy but more recently a staff writer for The New Yorker and Discover magazines, well, he does something wonderful. He writes about uniquely Southern activities and cultural artifacts without diminishing them or trying to pretend like they are always the norm. When I say this, well, I mean a couple of different things. First, I mean even if Bilgers disagrees with a particular activity, whether it be in rational or moral/ideological terms, he doesn't try to make out the practioners thereof to be monsters or fools - they are people engaging in an activity which, in one way or the other, provides them with a good (be it spiritual, financial, social, political, economic, or psychological) in their eyes. He obviously treats them with respect and, in turn, they open themselves up and treat him just as well (when you read his list of people he thanks, well, you know that part to be true). But don't take my word on this, check out this quote from Publishers Weekly, found on

It's refreshing to read a book about Southern subcultures that doesn't bog down in easy caricature or yet another Confederate flag discussion. Bilger, a journalist and features editor at Discover, writes with deadpan grace to capture half-buried worlds, linking the vivid participants to a larger historyAwhether it be the transatlantic heritage of soul food, the legal and illegal sides of cockfighting in America or the evolution of coondogs since the time of "the father of coon hunting," George Washington. The title essay describes the squirmy practice of "noodling" one's bare fingers inside a catfish's underwater hiding place until the toothed fish bites hard enough to be hauled to the surface. In his exploration of Louisiana cockfighting, Bilger pulls off something that easily could have backfired: he contrasts the rooster farm of John Demoruelle (where the cocks are pampered like feathered celebrities) with the anonymous violence of the modern chicken factory. As Bilger tours a Tyson chicken facility, the spectacle of the young birds riding passively to their conveyor-belt deaths complicates the reader's feelings about the comparatively glorious (but bloody) lives of the gamecocks. In other essays about a South Carolina "moonshiner's reunion," an Oklahoma coon-treeing competition and a visit with Kentuckians whose delicacy is squirrel brains, Bilger always sees past the freak show to get the full, resonant story, often of older cultures retreating before the new. Readers who liked the Southern exotica of Confederates in the Attic or Mullett Heads should enjoy this promising debut about "the forgotten folkways [that] still inhabit our back roads.

Pretty solid, eh?
The other thing Bilger does is convey a sense of where these practices actually stand in the real world. So many portraits of the South seem to infer that we all have coon hounds, we all drink moonshine, we all participate in estatic, pentacostal religious rites, and we all participate in Civil War re-enactments. And yes, probably most everyone knows someone (or multiple someones) who do each of these. Yet this does not mean that everyone participates in these things. Bilger lets his readers know that these are subcultures of subcultures of subcultures - isolated (which isn't really the right word, is it?) in communities that are sometimes geographic (consider the predominance of Franklin County, Virginia in moonshine production) and are sometimes merely metaphoric (as in the kinship of Bluegrass musicians that leads to fiddlin' conventions). Furthermore, Bilger notes that some of these traditions are on the wane and some where frankly never very widespread at all. What this means is that the South "unflattens" and becomes a much more varied and interesting place - and also a place that it is far more difficult to stigmatize (perhaps a Southern writer should undertake the same activity in the North and Midwest?).
This book is, of course, not just about Appalachia, but includes the entire South (for ya'll who don't understand the implication, that means, the Ozarks, the Delta, the Deep South, the Upper South, the Tidewater, Old Florida, the Mississippi-Missouri basin, the Blue Grass, the Eastern Shore, the lowlands of South Carolina, the Piedmont of North Carolina, and Coastal region of North Carolina, and any number of areas). That said, there are a few chapters that will hold special interest to anyone trying to take notes on our region. In particular I recommend the chapters on cock-fighting (which goes on in spades less than forty minutes from where I sit), moonshine (which I might or might not have had a few times), squirrel huntin' (and eatin') [which was a major part of my childhood), coon huntin', and chittlins. But the whole book is fantastic (rarely have I been so transfixed by any essay as much as I was by the chapter on noodling for flatheads).
All that said, just check this one out. Of course you can buy it from Amazon or Powell's, but if you're interested, you can also get it straight from the publisher (Simon & Schuster) in a digital format and read it from a computer or handheld device. Also, if you're still unconvinced I have some interviews for you: one from Southern Scribe and one from NPR.

Oh, and a final bit: if you're very sensitive about the treatment of animals, well, you might not want to read this book - while its not gruelingly detailed, the violent death of several species is described. There you go.


sctaylor said...

I bought my brand new copy for $4.95. This price includes the shipping cost. I didn't even have to go to the damn Isle of Man to buy it either. Which brings me to question, why in the hell did you buy a book on southern culture on the Isle of Man?

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