It is doubtful that this reviewer, sitting midst my hounds in one of Mississippi's woollier rural corners, can fully grasp the awe bound to gape the jaws of most readers of Burkhard Bilger's "Noodling for Flatheads." Few people outside the South, for instance, have even heard of catfish grabbing (the "noodling" of the title being an Okie variation), the peculiar and treacherous practice wherein barehanded folk wrestle up giant flathead catfish from their underwater lairs. And while most members of the bookish public are vaguely aware of activities like cockfighting, coon hunting and moonshining, they tend to associate them with an America long past -- when presidents were nicknamed Old Hickory, coonskin caps were all the rage and men and bears shared the same roadways, at about the same speed.
Not so hereabouts: My local saloon is strewn with men happy to show off the scars on their forearms from belligerent catfish; lost coon hounds wander into my yard every autumn; and moonshine goes for a dollar a shot at a juke joint one county over (and is best drunk, I've found, mixed weakly with Mello Yello). But hereabouts, as I'm ever reminded, isn't America proper, or properly American. Having written my share of magazine articles on topics similar to those included in this book, I know the weird glee that befalls Manhattan editors when apprised of such arcana. "That's so ... bizarre," comes the inevitable response. Perhaps, but then what's toting a bag full of dogshit while walking your pup through the city? The South, I'll contend, has no exclusive license on the bizarre.
Though it does, admittedly, bear its share of it. Top-tier science reporter Bilger documents eight of the region's more outlandish bizarreries: catfish grabbling, cockfighting, moonshining, squirrel-brain eating, frog farming, coon hunting, chitlin eating and rolley holing (a mutation of the game of marbles native to Tennessee's Cumberland River area). Yet bizarreries might be too strong a term -- squirrel and coon hunting, after all, once made perfect sense (that being meat and fur); moonshining was once no less sensible a chore than soap making; and the eating of chitlins -- that's pig intestines -- was an essential if unpleasant condition of slave life. What's bizarre about these practices, then, isn't necessarily inherent to them; it's their continuation in the face of their modern inutility, rather, that gives them the stamp of oddity. (Coon hunters, for instance, don't actually kill raccoons these days; they award their dogs points for tracking a coon to a tree, and then promptly strike another trail.) The why of these pursuits is at the center of any meaningful intrigue they hold; the details of how may beguile, but without the why they're merely spectacle.
Thankfully, this isn't lost upon Bilger. "'Noodling for Flatheads,'" he writes in the introduction, "is less about the traditions themselves than the hardy, tenacious communities that have come to entangle them, like wild vines around an underground spring." He approaches his subjects with a guarded enthusiasm, self-consciously determined not to trip into New York-y distaste or disapproval. And he's often surprised at how "normal" his subjects come across: the cozy, familial air of a Louisiana cockfighting pit, the market-savvy business acumen of a Virginia moonshiner and the sizable investment coon hunters often drop into their sport (coon hounds can run upward of $20,000), which tends to smash the sharecropper stereotype. "I felt like some South Sea explorer," he writes at one juncture, "making my way past spooky totems and grim palisades only to find a few peaceable villagers inside, eating roots and swatting at flies."
Yet Bilger doesn't indulge in the kind of romanticizing so epidemic in our universities' American studies and folklore departments -- that condescending, preserve-at-all-costs mentality that specialists seem intent to apply to every Southern folkway save lynching. Bilger doesn't shy away from unsavory detail, and his judgments, though infrequent, carry the sting of moral rationality, as when he brings his gavel down upon an overcommercialized cockfighting event: "Elsewhere [the gamecocks] might be symbols of sin or sexuality, courage or betrayal, stand-ins for their owners or for the devil himself. But [here] a gamecock was just another form of disposable culture."
If there's an ore holding all these glossy fragments together, it's contained in the following passage: "After half a century of television, it's easy to mistake our sitcoms for ourselves -- to imagine that there's no more to popular culture than Barbie dolls and TV theme songs. But forgotten folkways still inhabit our back roads," floating through the history of a place, as he later writes, "like dandelion seed -- wispy, windblown, barely alive."
This is reasonable stuff, to be sure, and a splendid enough excuse for pith-helmeted reportage. But, alas, Bilger's ore doesn't always quite bind: At times the book feels like an assemblage of majestic magazine pieces -- on subjects chosen, it can seem, by measuring their distance from the commercial mainstream -- fused together every which way. (To be fair, Bilger admits this: "I won't pretend," he writes in the introduction, "that [this] is a comprehensive portrait, or even an internally consistent one.") Nonetheless, there's an America peeking out from between these pages, a clandestine subnation of people clinging to what they know -- call it heritage or regional signification or whatever you please -- despite the ever-clicking acceleration of cultural homogeneity.
One might argue that the people in "Noodling for Flatheads" have simply been left behind, orphans of progress cleaving to their outmoded ways for sad lack of knowing better. But Bilger doesn't think so, and neither do I. The men at my saloon -- the ones with the scars on their forearms from sticking their hands into the maws of catfish and pulling them up by their gills -- know damn well what a hook and line are. They just choose to ignore them, and to do it their way -- which, God bless 'em, is about as American as it gets.