In Jon Sealy’s debut novel, the men of Castle County South Carolina like their whiskey. It doesn’t matter the beverage is illegal. The alcoholic buzz takes the edge off the tough economic times of 1932. The country has been dry since January 1920, when the 18th amendment went into effect outlawing alcoholic beverages; however, thanks to Larthan Tull, a.k.a. the whiskey baron, the men are well supplied.
Tull is a drug lord of sorts, a Mafioso type monopolizing the region’s illegal liquor trade, working closely with Aunt Lou, who looks more like a spinster aunt than the largest distributor of liquor in the Carolinas. Sheriff Furman Chambers turns a blind eye to the baron’s activities, until he can’t, when two of Tull’s runners — young boys — are shot dead on Highway 9 outside Tull’s speakeasy. Tull’s deputy claims “Mary Jane” Hopewell did it, only the sheriff knows the drunk no-good doesn’t have it in his DNA to pull the trigger like that.
What unfolds is not a whodunit. We know early on how and why the killing happened. The murders are catalysts in a larger, atmospheric story about bootlegging in the south during harsh, violent times. Farmers sell their corn crops to Tull to keep their farms solvent and others, who lost their farms, go to work in the local cotton mill and scrimp to make ends meet. As the sheriff’s brother so eloquently states to his law-enforcing sibling:
“There’s laws from God, there’s laws from man, and there’s the law of the economy, and those things don’t always agree, especially when you’ve got a banker to pay.”
It is just such philosophy that drives Mary Jane to encroach on Tull’s turf with a special tasting whiskey he’s brewed on the riverfront property of his girlfriend, the widow Abigail Coleman; however, you just don’t mess with Tull’s business. Mary Jane learns this the hard way — the boys who are gunned down had agreed to be his runners — and he goes into hiding. Tull meanwhile pays threatening and destructive visits to Abigail, and the Feds arrive in town looking for a way to get Tull in jail once and for all. Mary Jane’s family — his brother, sister-in-law and nephews — have no idea what’s going on. They’ve got problems of their own, squeezed to the breaking point with life’s stresses, including the oldest boy Quinn sneaking off to “spark” with Tull’s beautiful daughter, Evelyn.
Sealy writes powerfully on several levels, drawing us in with a palpable sense of place, a violent time period and a quick pace of events that sustain incertitude to the very end. The characters, in a few scenes, come across as cut-outs of what we’d expect, but that’s an isolated complaint considering their circumstances add to the story’s pull — Tull as a soulless business man who needs his daughter; Joe Hopewell, Mary Jane’s brother, held together by a thin wire of courage in his adversity; and the burned-out sheriff, worrying about his marriage and grieving for the sons he lost in World War I.
The sheriff closes in on the truth of what happened on Highway 9, and Larthan Tull closes in on Mary Jane. What brings the story to its explosive conclusion is a clever entangling of the people in this South Carolina mill town. It’s unexpected and flat-out unforgettable, making this impressive first novel written by Jon Sealy a reason to jump up and shout “bravo!”