The Old South is slow to give up its secrets. Though satellite dishes outnumber banjo players a thousand to one, most traditions haven't died; they've just gone into hiding. Cockfighting is illegal in forty-eight states, yet there are three national cockfighting magazines and cockpits in even the most tranquil communities. Homemade liquor has been outlawed for more than a century, yet moonshiners in Virginia still ship nearly one million gallons a year. Some of these pastimes are ancient, others ultramodern; some are illegal, others merely obscure. But the people who practice them share an undeniable kinship. Instead of wealth, promotion, or a few seconds of prime time, they follow dreams that lead them ever deeper underground. They are reminders, ultimately, that American culture isn't as predictable as it seems-that the weeds growing between its cracks are its most vital signs of life.
In these masterfully crafted essays, Burkhard Bilger explores the history and practice of eight such clandestine worlds. Like John McPhee and Ian Frazier, he introduces us to people whose spirit of individualism keeps traditions alive, from a fifty-something female coon hunter who spends 340 nights a year in the woods to a visionary frog farmer and a man whose arms are scarred by the eighty-pound catfish he catches by hand. A fluid combination of adventure, history, and humor, Noodling for Flatheads is evocative, intelligent, and wonder-fully weird-a splendid antidote to the sameness of today's popular culture.
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 history--whether 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 still inhabit our back roads."