“Bull Mountain,” by Brian Panowich

Brian Panowich

Brian Panowich

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

The ancient story of brother pitted against brother gets a fresh take in Brian Panowich’s debut novel, Bull Mountain, by combining family saga, mystery, and crime with the best elements of literary fiction.

The story’s easy yet elegant style, nuanced characters, and gripping plot will earn it many fans. Panowich’s dark, gritty tale feels like a cross between the novels of Cormac McCarthy and Mario Puzo.

Set in the North Georgia mountains, the story employs multiple viewpoints and spans several generations of the Burroughs family. The family adapts their business to the times by running shine, then marijuana, and more recently meth. Bull Mountain exists in a world apart from the rest of Georgia, untouched by the law: “no one gets to tell them what they and cannot do on their own land.” Panowich creates an unforgettable setting, one as deeply felt and richly peopled as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

To be born a Burroughs means you, your family and Bull Mountain are inseparable because “[t]here is a subtle symbiotic relationship between the land up here and the people who call it home . . . something deeper than bone.”

Until Clayton comes along. The youngest son, he eschews the criminal life of his clan and moves to nearby Waymore Valley where he becomes sheriff, marries a good woman, and forges a different sort of life. A truly decent man, he rises above the shadowy life he was born into.

Halford, Clayton’s older brother and the “hillbilly godfather,” enforces the smooth running of their criminal enterprises with an arsenal of weapons and a take-no-prisoners outlook passed down through the generations. More than one body has been buried on the mountain, including murdered family members. But as long as Clayton stays off the mountain and keeps his nose out of the family business, the brothers maintain an uneasy truce.

The peace holds until a federal agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms asks Clayton to persuade his brother to rat out a gun-running operation in Florida. At first Clayton refuses, but when Agent Holly makes clear Halford Burroughs is going down with or without his help, Clayton reconsiders. Together the sheriff and federal agent hope to “shut down the biggest flow of guns and dope in the history of the East Coast.” More important, Clayton thinks this may be his last chance to save his brother from jail or a violent death. The idea of Clayton going against his brother terrifies Clayton’s wife, who worries that one night he won’t come home and she’ll have to wonder if he’s buried “in a holler somewhere next to everyone else” his family disagreed with.

Not for the faint of heart, this novel depicts horrific violence against those who betray the family, violence against women, and violence of kin against kin. Though Clayton wants to escape this family legacy, his path as sheriff leads him directly into the line of fire.

The twists come fast and furious and people are not always what they seem in this compelling literary mystery published by Putnam.

Brian Panowich was a touring musician for twelve years before settling in East Georgia with his family. He now works fulltime as a firefighter. He is an exciting new author to watch.

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