The Poetry of Fact: On Alec Wilkinson’s Moonshine

Abandoned shack in rural North Carolina. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The quantity and quality of consternation caused me by the publication of Alec Wilkinson’s Moonshine in 1985 is difficult to articulate. This utterance should prove probative. If we are in a foreword, an afterword, or perhaps ideally a middleword, we will shortly be in a model of muddle at the very end of the clarity spectrum away from Moonshine itself, with its amber lucidity, as someone said of the prose of someone, sometime, maybe of Beckett, maybe of Virgil, who knows, throw it into the muddle. The consternation caused me by this book is even starker next to the delight of reading the book itself before the personal accidents of my response are figured in. I will essay to detail those accidents, but I would like to first say something about the method of the writing.

Alec Wilkinson is one of two literary grandsons of Joseph Mitchell, the grandfather of the poetry of fact. “The poetry of fact” is a phrase I momentarily fancied I coined, but the second literary grandson of Joseph Mitchell, Ian Frazier, corrected me, and I have assented to his claim that he coined the phrase. One’s vanities are silly and dangerous. It is a vanity to think to say there are but two grandsons of Joseph Mitchell as well. There are doubtless dozens and, of course, granddaughters, too; what I mean is that Alec Wilkinson and Ian Frazier are the grandsons with whom I am most familiar, and most fond, and so it is convenient to sloppily say they are it.

What is the poetry of fact? Good question. Since I am not the coiner of the term and, at best, a dilettante in its practice, I may be excused, I hope, if my answer is wanting, but I vow to do my best. I, alas, have brought it up. When the justice of the peace who conducted my marriage, Judge Leonard Hentz of Sealy, Texas, asked if anyone objected to the imminent union, he looked up and said, of our sole witness, “Well, hell, he’s the only one here, and y’all brought him, so let’s get on with it.”

The poetry of fact is the ordering for power of empirical facts, historical facts, narrative elements, objects, dialogues, clauses, phrases, words—it is the construction of catalogues of things large or small into arrays of power. The power of the utterance is the point. The preferred mode of delivery is the declarative sentence, simple or compound, without subordination or dependent clauses—without what Mr. Frazier has called “riders.” Power in this instance—in any writing, really—is to be understood as a function of where things are placed. The end of a series or sequence or catalogue or paragraph or chapter or essay or book is the position of what we will call primary thrust. It is what will linger in the brain uppermost because it is lattermost. The beginning of an array, large or small, is the position of secondary thrust: the “first impression” that gets lost but never quite recedes. The middle of an array is the tertiary thrust—the middle gets lost in the middle, ordinarily. This is the middle’s job. Games can be played with these positions of emphasis. A sockdolager, to employ Twain, can be buried in the middle where, because it is a sockdolager, it is not exactly buried and may constitute a surprise. The emphatic middle, let us call it, installs an irony, raises an eyebrow whether anyone realizes it or not. An “unemphatic” end also installs an eyebrow. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is onto but the very tip of this iceberg with its Elementary Principles of Composition #18: “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Were it “The words at the end of a sentence are emphatic,” they’d have been closer to the nuanced complexity of the poetry of fact, but let’s move on.

The poetry of fact requires interesting facts. The best-case scenario for interesting facts is an interesting person doing interesting things. Once such a person is located, if it can be the case that he or she can speak well about the doing, we are in a second power—colorful deeds performed by a colorful person, colorful squared.

The poetry of fact does not permit of the coy. By coy, I mean overt withholding that arrests the reader’s neutral expectations. The reader is not compelled to say “Wait . . .” or allowed to ask “And?” The reader certainly need never ask “What?” The reader is not working to follow. The reader is not tightroping in grammatical suspensions—or worse, logical suspensions—for the logic or the thought or the drift to evolve. The stuff is coming easily and naturally (seeming). The reader sees this, this, and this. The reader does not see if that, this, or while this, that. Withholding of a fact to achieve “suspense” is perhaps the cardinal sin. The stuff must come timely in a straight (seeming) line, and if done right, it is powerful largely because there is no frustration or difficulty of perception. The root scheme is what Hemingway was after. He wanted to strip writing of rhetoric and “thinking.” It is a pointillist technique that, as it goes, assembles a large, strong, obvious, digestible portrait. It is a pointillist technique that, as it goes, assembles a digestible, strong, obvious, large portrait. It is a pointillist technique that as it goes assembles a strong, digestible, large, obvious portrait. It is a pointillist technique that as it goes assembles a digestible, strong, obvious, large portrait. As it goes, it assembles a strong, large, digestible, obvious portrait via a pointillist technique. A strong, large, digestible, obvious portrait via a pointillist technique is assembled as it goes. Quod erat demonstrandum, and not well.

The poetry of fact does not permit opinion or comment or instruction toward inferences to be made by the reader. Inference is a function solely of the manipulations of the facts and the facts themselves.

Let us see now how this actually works when it is not being cartoonishly parodied. Here is the opening of Mr. Wilkinson’s Moonshine:

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 fish, 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.

Three declarative sentences, each with an orienting beginning, a buried middle, and a hard, elevated end. The ordering of the sentences themselves demonstrates this secondary, tertiary, and primary emphasis. (This idée fixe of mine, I assure you, is about to bother us no more. I will break down this paragraph now and as a reward for your indulgence release us immediately to the book itself. A good introduction to a good book should release us in the first sentence—certainly a bad one should.)

These three sentences, remembered for their final thrusts alone, a hazy kind of natural default recall, announce together that liquor is sold illegally, that this selling is policed by a man who has pretended to be an idiot doing it, and that our idiot-seeming cop may be the best there is “in a state that has always been enormously productive of moonshine.” This is a curious phrase, asked to bear the weight of the entire opening paragraph of the book. “Enormously productive” is a fact, but it is rendered in a hue some distance away, on the palette of diction, from “moonshine.” Why Mr. Wilkinson ends his paragraph opening the book Moonshine with “moonshine” is comparatively easy to explain next to why his penult is “enormously productive.” Moonshine is funky and nefarious even in antonym, as in “Put it where the moon don’t shine.” What I mean by shift in hue with “enormously productive” might more commonly be called a shift in register; to stay in register with “moonshine,” we might expect “in a state that has always made a lot of moonshine.” Why has Mr. Wilkinson played with the paint, or the diction, like this? No one in this market would be expected to say, “I am in a state that has always been enormously productive of moonshine.” He would say, “We make a lot of moonshine here.” “North Carolina is full of moonshine and bootleggers.” “Yes, Hyram, we are enormously productive of moonshine.” “Why are you talking like a dick, Cecil?” “Because I am a poet. Do you want to fight?” I have taken us down what parlance today demands we call “a rabbit hole,” and I did not mean to. The difference in register constitutes a joke, a small one that is funny, as jokes should be, but that also in this instance says something about what we will call the code, which may be called instruction on how to read a book. The code here says, “This little play in hue of tone or in register of diction means that I am in charge here and aware of what I am doing and if I want to sound for a second a tad pedantic with an arch sound that makes of moonshine an even more heavy-landing word than it is, I will.” Wilkinson announces: Despite its flat-looking declaratory simplicity of affect, this is a thoughtful and intimately controlled book you hold, Reader. Watch it.

Let’s get out of the rabbit hole.

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.

Five words into the book, the odd and weirdly theatrical name Garland Bunting establishes the subject of the book up front (if it had not been coined better by my betters, I could have called the poetry of fact the art of up front), and five more words in, buried in the middle of this sentence, we see that Mr. Bunting captures and prosecutes men and women. Capturing men and women is an ironically emphatic element to be buried in a sentence; note that Mr. Wilkinson cannot responsibly say “capturing” without addending “prosecuting,” or we’d be misled into thinking Mr. Bunting up to illicit rather than licit engaging. Facts are not left out to achieve cheap effect. We have it established that we have a subject who does interesting things; all we need for the cherry-on-sundae ignition is Mr. Bunting’s capacity to talk well about what he does. The first thing we see him say is that he is shaped like a sweet potato: “small at both ends and big in the middle. It’s hard to keep pants up on a thing like that.” A self-deprecating fellow who captures people and can talk. Mr. Wilkinson discovered him in a newspaper article and called him up and asked if he could come down for a week to write about him. Mr. Bunting said, “A couple days maybe, but nothing like no week.”

The second sentence of the book is an orthodox catalogue, which is, really, the catalogue, all that is meant by the lofty “poetry of fact.” Good catalogue. Good catalogue is the correct elements allowed to coil for power. The coiling requires patience. The secondary/tertiary/primary infrastructure, to get Marxian about it, must be back-burnered in the brain while things logically and visually and sonically adjust themselves, like a snake settling in a box. When the snake is comfortable and on guard, draw a picture of him.

To do this he has driven taxis, delivered sermons, peddled fish, buck danced, worked carnivals as a barker, operated bulldozers, loaded carriages and hauled logs at sawmills, feigned drunkenness, and pretended to be an idiot.

Note, beyond the traditional placing of our sockdolager at the end—the pretending to be an idiot—the two longer phrases in the middle of the catalogue, longer and perhaps less visually immediate:

worked carnivals as a barker . . . loaded carriages and hauled logs at sawmills . . .

And note the separating of these arguably more diffuse elements with the strong, clean “operated bulldozers”—perhaps the literal center of this catalogue; the truest and lostest middle of it is a policeman on a bulldozer in pursuit, somehow, of a bootlegger. On a bulldozer! In a phrase trying to be concealed! It’s a world—this book—of paradox, structurally and otherwise. All that this inessential bloviation of comment I have expended at it does is demonstrate the fine control of quiet paradox Mr. Wilkinson writes with.

I have committed all this gobbledy trying to stop short of the gook in gobbledygook. It was hoped that you as reader would say to yourself at some point, You’d better cease this nonsense and get to the book. If you did, good. If not, we now approach with relief an end.

The publication of Moonshine put me in a world of consternation; this delightful tour de force hurt me because at the moment of its heaving onto the literary horizon in 1985, I was at work on a subject at the other end of Mr. Wilkinson’s and Mr. Bunting’s spectrum. I was at work on a subject who in nearly every way, legally and anthropologically, was in opposition to Mr. Bunting, and who in fact could have been one of Mr. Bunting’s targeted perps. Shortly after publication of Moonshine, my subject was busted for distilling liquor and growing marijuana on his swamp property in Red Springs, North Carolina, 168 miles away from Mr. Bunting’s Scotland Neck, and I do not know for a fact that Mr. Bunting did not do the busting but believe that my subject was taken down with lesser and more local force than Mr. Bunting represents.

Mr. Wilkinson had done with Mr. Bunting what I could not do with my subject. My subject did things as interesting as Mr. Bunting did, things the least interesting of which was the bootlegging and pot growing, and he could talk well about them. He was a native of the Lumbee Tribe with a degree from Brigham Young, by way of Vietnam and the GI Bill, and a Mormon wife and a kennel of dogs that generated the only living ever made by selling pit dogs and a career in Peeping Tomism, and he would, once the local whiskey still and pot charges were adjudicated and the Mormon wife had abdicated and the kennel had bankrupted, go on to do three years federal time for large-scale pot running in rental cars from the border of Mexico into the poor, low, murderous hills of Robeson County, North Carolina. “The government dudn’t care about the drugs,” he told me. “They want the money.” (It is not by whim that Mr. Bunting is called a revenue agent and not a liquor agent.) He had flown with suitcases containing halves of millions of dollars in cash to Switzerland, more at one point than one bank could, or would, accept. He would go down the street with what one bank did not accept to another bank that would. One day he said, “I’mone drop a bomb on you.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Nuclear now.” I said, “Okay.” “Nuclear bomb now.” I said, “Okay, drop it.” He said, “Bisexual.” I said, “Who? You or—?” He said, “Me.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “What that means, buddyro, is that in the last eighteen years I have sucked six thousand dicks.”

I had this nuclear bomb, a huge sexual topography to explore,* and was discovering as we went the troubled history of the Lumbee to give it all some scope—and I did not write the book.

Because what I failed to say in all the maundering above, all the this this this and not if this, then this tertiary schmertiary, all the catalogic explications and the sly pedantic, is: This kind of writing is HARD. The gathering of fact alone will kill you. The coiling of the fact will then exhaust the dead. I did not write my book.

I lazed out on my book about my colorful cheerful bootlegging fighting-dog-breeding soldier-seducing Lumbee raconteur. Mr. Wilkinson did not laze out on his book, on his colorful cheerful potato-shaped policeman after my man. I thank him for his industry.


*When I later attempted to verify the six thousand dicks, my man said, “What?” I thought he would retract. He said, “I want to revise that count.” I said okay. He took a minute in a chair looking at the ceiling and said, “One thousand.” That is when I started really paying attention.


From the introduction to the new edition of Alec Wilkinson’s Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor, out from Godine Nonpareil in June .

Padgett Powell is the author of six novels, including Edisto, a National Book Awards finalist, and You & Me. His other books include three short-story collections and the essay collection, Indigo: Arm Wrestling, Snake Saving, and Some Things in Between. His awards include a Whiting Award in Fiction, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Mary Hobson Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters. He has been a professor of writing at the University of Florida since 1984.

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