‘Hillbilly Noir': New Books Explore Kentucky’s Drug Trade

by Erin Keane on April 19, 2012

There is the Kentucky we often see in literature: a reverence for the pastoral landscape and for folksy wisdom, for majestic horses and for the quiet secrets buried deep in the bluegrass and in the mountains. But new books by Kirby Gann and James Higdon dig deep inside the state’s drug trade to turn that traditional portrayal on its head.

Critics are calling it hillbilly noir.

Kirby Gann’s novel “Ghosting” tells the story of Cole, a young man who attempts to solve the mystery of his missing brother by following in his footsteps working for the local drug kingpin.

Gann says much of his novel was inspired by the gothic stories he grew up hearing from his family. A scene where a character is gunned down in front of unconcerned neighbors is based on a story Gann had been told about his own great-grandfather.

“To my modern perspective that’s just insane,” says Gann. “But to people in certain point in time in a certain culture I can see how that sort of thing makes sense. What would life have to be like for that to make sense for you?”

It doesn’t look like traditional literary Kentucky. The horses in the novel are ghostly reminders of a dead wife, and the family farms are hidden marijuana crops guarded by weathered cattle bones. Gann says he made a conscious decision to subvert as many homegrown tropes and clichés as possible.

“Our reverence for the land, family bonds, horses. I never managed to get in the bourbon thing, but I guess marijuana growing, you know, we’re known for that, too,” says Gann.

Cole’s brother Fleece made off with his boss’s marijuana harvest, and Cole takes his brother’s old job to try to solve the mystery of his disappearance. Cole is the story’s hero, but drug lord Mister Greuel is the compelling villain upon whom all of the characters’ fortunes revolve. Gann describes Mister Greuel, a swollen grotesque running his crumbling empire from a wheelchair, as an anarchic character with a heart.

“He’s cheerfully vicious,” he says.

And he’s not the only one. Gann’s corner of Kentucky is full of dead bodies. The book’s setting, fictional Lake Holloway, is an insular area where anything goes except the police.

“If you just had a bunch of people who weren’t really law-abiding by nature and didn’t have to worry about consequences because the clannishness of the place policed itself instead of an outside authority, what could you get away with?” says Gann.

According to Lebanon native James Higdon’s “The Cornbread Mafia,” you can get away with a lot. “The Cornbread Mafia” is the amazing true-crime saga of the largest domestic marijuana syndicate in U.S. history centered in rural Marion County, and the folk hero Johnny Boone, a major grower who vanishes during the writing of the book and remains a fugitive from the law.

Marion County was booming before Prohibition closed its nine distilleries, forcing thousands out of work. That marked a turning point for some residents, who turned to moonshining and bootlegging to feed their large Catholic families.

“It fostered within the community this idea that one could break the law while still being a member of the community,” Higdon says. “The way the community justified that was this concept that one could violate man’s law without violating God’s law.”

That old bootlegger philosophy grew into a highly successful marijuana industry, with a sophistication and a code of silence that rivaled the high-profile organized crime syndicates on the east coast.

“Folks had been not getting caught doing stuff for two generations by then and they already had backgrounds in farming and agriculture, so growing an acre of it was no different from growing five acres of it, so why not grow a whole bunch of it? Which is what they did,” says Higdon.

It’s a story Higdon’s been following for decades. He grew up in Marion County, and he says in the late 1980s, a funny thing happened at his Catholic grade school.

“In sixth, seventh, eighth grade, uncles and fathers of my classmates started going to prison,” he says. “It just became this thing, all of the sudden, you knew the kids whose parents were in jail.”

After Higdon moved away for graduate school, he realized that the sensational story of his hometown’s criminals and the culture that made them could change people’s ideas of what it means to be from Kentucky.

“I don’t write any of that to make where I’m from look bad, I put that in there because it makes where I’m from feel real, that people where I’m from live life all the way,” says Higdon.

Carmichael’s Bookstore will host Gann’s reading from “Ghosting” on Saturday and Higdon’s reading from “The Cornbread Mafia” on April 25.

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