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For more than thirty years Garland Bunting has been engaged in capturing and prosecuting men and women in North Carolina who make and sell liquor illegally. To do this he has driven taxis, delivered sermons, peddled ?sh, buck danced, worked carnivals as a barker, operated bulldozers, loaded carriages and hauled logs at sawmills, feigned drunkenness, and pretended to be an idiot. In the minds of many people he is the most successful revenue agent in the history of a state that has always been enormously productive of moonshine.
…and we’re off. Maybe it’s because I’d just listened to Henry James’s stilted and artificial language–in Turn of the Screw–spoken by uniformly unlikeable characters, that this profile was such a delicious palette cleanser. Somehow I’d missed Alec Wilkinson in my readings of the great New Yorker essayists, like Joseph Mitchell, Berton Roueche, E. B. White, etc. But when Padgett Powell refers to him as “one of two literary grandsons of Joseph Mitchell” (the other being Ian Frazier in her estimation) she hits the nail right on the head. Like Mitchell, he uses straightforward declarative language to profile a colorful character and lets that subject speak for himself in beguiling turns of phrase and monologues. It’s enchanting

The book, of course, began as a piece in the New Yorker, but here Wilkinson gets to add background meat to the bones, including extensive background on moonshining, coon hunting, and the like. And, as with Mitchell, the key is that we so enjoy spending time with Bunting–as the author clearly did–that the story is free to meander, yet still thoroughly entertains.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Alec Wilkinson Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Alec Wilkinson
    -PODCAST: Sailing Uncovered - the Podcast (hosted by Alec Wilkinson)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (Longform)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (NY Times)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (LitHub)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (NY Review of Books)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (Muck Rack)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (Rolling Stone)
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Alec Wilkinson (Sports Illustrated)
    -ESSAY: MOONSHINE (Alec Wilkinson, August 11, 1985, The New Yorker)
    -EXCERPT: from Midnights: A Year With the Wellfleet Police by Alec Wilkinson
    -ESSAY: How Mathematics Changed Me: If one is inclined toward mysteries, mathematics can lead one to the conclusion that behind the veil of life there is a structure and an order. (Alec Wilkinson, September 6, 2022, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Teaching Myself Calculus at Sixty-Five: I was never a good math student, but I was determined to penetrate the mysteries of mathematics. (Alec Wilkinson, July 8, 2022, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Return of White Sharks to Cape Cod: It’s a different feeling when swimming at the beaches that I grew up on. (Alec Wilkinson, August 25, 2021, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: The Serial-Killer Detector: A former journalist, equipped with an algorithm and the largest collection of murder records in the country, finds patterns in crime. (Alec Wilkinson, November 20, 2017, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: New York is Killing Me (Alec Wilkinson, 8/09/10, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Death of a Dystopian: Conspiracy theorists think that the government killed the aspiring Libertarian filmmaker David Crowley to stop him from making his film about an authoritarian takeover of the United States and the vets who fight back. The truth is far stranger. (Alec Wilkinson, Mar 2017, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Something Borrowed: The adventures and controversies of the avant-garde poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who believes plagiarism is an art form. (Alec Wilkinson, Sep 2015, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: A Hole in the Ground: Is a serial killer on the loose in Wellfleet? An investigation. (Alec Wilkinson, Jan 2000, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Could learning algebra in my 60s make me smarter?: New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson struggled with maths at school, finding inspiration in literature instead. But aged 65, in the hope of unlocking a new part of his brain, he decided to put the limits of his intelligence to the test (Alec Wilkinson, Sun 7 Aug 2022, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Conversations with a Killer: John Wayne Gacy murdered thirty-three boys and became America’s most notorious killer. In the weeks before his scheduled execution, he was far from reconciled to his fate. (Alec Wilkinson, Apr. 10th, 1994, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Elmore’s Legs: How does Elmore Leonard get true grit? (Alec Wilkinson, September 22, 1996, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: A Gear Slips: On Obsession, Evidence, and A Gray State’s David Crowley (Alec Wilkinson, Sep 12, 2017, Walker Art)
    -ESSAY: A Numbers Game: We associate algebra, geometry, and calculus with practicality and logic. But the origins of math are as mysterious as any scripture (ALEC WILKINSON, JULY 2, 2022, AirMail)
    -REVIEW: Illuminating the Brain’s ‘Utter Darkness’: A new biography considers the peculiar life of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, whose discovery that nerve cells are individual completely overthrew the existing theory of the brain: a review of The Brain in Search of Itself: Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Story of the Neuron by Benjamin Ehrlich and Spark: The Life of Electricity and the Electricity of Life by Timothy J. Jorgensen (Alec Wilkinson, February 9, 2023, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Literary Magic and Refusing to Give Up as a Writer: Alec Wilkinson Introduces Maxwell’s Speech at Smith College in 1955 (William Maxwell, January 26, 2024, LitHub)
    -REVIEW: of COP WORLD Inside an American Police Force. By James McClure (Alec Wilkinson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE RIVER: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's Dilemma by Alex Kotlowitz (Alec Wilkinson, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Math Is the Great Secret (Alec Wilkinson, Sept. 18, 2022, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Math Is the Answer to More Than One Question (Alec Wilkinson, Feb. 9, 2024, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: DRIP...DRIP...DRIP (Alec Wilkinson, 9/1/18, Esquire)
    -ESSAY: EXTRATERRESTRIALS (Alec Wilkinson, 6/01/98, Esquire)
    -EXCERPT: Prime Factors: from A Divine Language (Alec Wilkinson)
    -ESSAY: The searchers: In pursuit of the drowned (Alec Wilkinson, June 2008, Harpers)
    -ESSAY: Neil Young: The Open Man: The rocker doesn't so much write songs as wait for them. Last year, facing brain surgery, the wait was over (Alec Wilkinson, JANUARY 26, 2006, Rolling Stone)
    -ESSAY: Steely Dan: Return of the Dark Brothers: Nearly two decade after burning out and fading away, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan are picking up exactly where they left off (Alec Wilkinson, MARCH 30, 2000, Rolling Stone)
    -ESSAY: Kids and Guns: In Their Own Words: In a Maryland county where twelve teenagers were arrested on murder charges within one month, high school students talk about fear, violence and their uneasy faith in firearms (Alec Wilkinson, JANUARY 18, 2001, Rolling Stone)
    -ESSAY: Bob Weir: Friend of the Devil: At age sixteen he began playing with the band. Now, as the remnants of the Dead take to the road, Bob Weir looks back on an epic hippie life (Alec Wilkinson, JULY 9, 1998, Rolling Stone)
    -ESSAY: The Theory and Practice of the Hockey Fight: An appreciation of the fine art of the enforcers (Alec Wilkinson, JUNE 11, 1998, Rolling Stone)
    -PODCAST: Alec Wilkinson on his Quest to Learn Calculus At the Edge of Old Age (KQED: Forum, 25 July 2022)
    -PODCAST: Annals of Crime: The Serial-Killer Detector by Alec Wilkinson (The New Yorker) (20 November 2017)
    -PODCAST: #119: Alec Wilkinson (Longform Podcast)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Alec Wilkinson (Terry Gross, MAY 10, 2002, NPR: Fresh Air)
    -VIDEO: A Divine Language: An Evening with Alec Wilkinson and Rich Cohen (Books & Books, Jul 27, 2022)
    -INTERVIEW: Transcript of Book Beat radio feature on Alec Wilkinson (Don Swaim, Book Beat) [PDF]
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Interview: Alec Wilkinson – Author, Journalist, Critic, Musician (Elman + Perez-Trujillo, ArtSpeak)
    -ESSAY: The Poetry of Fact: On Alec Wilkinson’s Moonshine (Padgett Powell, May 16, 2024, Paris Review)
    -VIDEO ARCHIVES: Alec Wilkinson (YouTube)
    -ARCHIVES: “alec wilkinson” (The Guardian)
    -ARCHIVES: Alec Wilkinson (Internet Archives)
    -ARCHIVES: alec wilkinson (NPR: Fresh Air)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVE: Alec Wilkinson (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW: of Moonshine by Alec Wilkinson (Bob Lancaster, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Moonshine (Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Moonshine (Nick Wurf, Harvard Crimson)
    -REVIEW: of Moonshine (Alfred Dockery, Medium)
    -REVIEW: of Moonshine
    -REVIEW: of Moonshine (Isaac Randel, Foreword)
    -REVIEW: of Moonshine (Kenneth Turan, TIME)
    -REVIEW: of The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino by Alec Wilkinson (David Hellman, SF Gate)
    -REVIEW: of Happiest Man (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Happiest Man (Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson (Robin McKie, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Writer as Illusionist: Uncollected and Unpublished Work by William Maxwell, edited by Alec Wilkinson (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of A Divine Language: Learning Algebra, Geometry, and Calculus at the Edge of Old Age by Alec Wilkinson (Punblishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Divine Language (Jennifer Szalai, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Divine Language (Hamilton Cain, Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Divine Language (Siobhan Roberts, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of Divine Language (Afaf Abu Sirhan , Library Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Divine Language (John Keogh, Booklist)
    -REVIEW: of Divine Language (the Curious Wavefunction)
    -REVIEW: of Divine Language (Kirkus)
    -ESSAY: The History of Moonshine (Bland Simpson, 2006, Walton Distillery)

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