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Brian Panowich's debut novel, "Bull Mountain", is without doubt a page turner, an exploration into a multi-generational criminal family from the deep, dense mountains of Northern Georgia. The author craftily develops the experiences of children coming to adulthood in a multi generational crime family living in this harsh part of the country. The novel uses the classic good vs. evil themes while also showing the grey zones as well as the complications that arise when one member of the family tries to leave the "bad" family and become "good". There is excitement, intrigue, and mystery but also because the characters are violent and crude people, it follows that there is a lot of violence in this book. The violence is not out-of-context but it is none-the-less present and harsh. The treatment of women is abusive with much violence and disrespect aimed at them throughout the criminal side of the novel which is most likely true in these types of outlaw communities. However, I experienced the characters as (sorry, folks) stereotypical (the good too good and the bad too bad) and I would have enjoyed a little more character development. Overall, I do recommend this novel for its fast pace, ongoing tension, and its historical value in exploring this family of outlaws from past to present.
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“..it's awful not to be loved. It's the worst thing in the world...It makes you mean, and violent, and cruel.” ― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
From the first sentence of Panowich's novel, you get the feeling that you're waiting for detonation:
'"Family," the old man said to no one.
The word hung in a puff of frozen breath before dissipating into the early morning fog. Riley Burroughs used that word the same way a master carpenter used a hammer. Sometimes he just gave it a gentle tap....but sometimes he used it with all the subtlety of a nine-pound sledge."
The same can be said of the way Panowich puts words on paper; from prose at times as dazzling as Steinbeck's and as lush as Burke's, to a complex multi-generational saga as intense as McCarthy's, and as granite-edged as Woodrell's -- the story releases itself like an exploding keg of dynamite. His characters feel saturated in violence and tragedy, bound to Bull Mountain by some family curse passed on from when Cain slew Abel. These aren't the same evocative smoky-blue mountains where hillbillies ("Appalachian distillers") once clandestinely set up their stills and boiled corn mash to make moonshine (because corn provides the highest yield of alcohol per bushel of all the grains) for a couple of bucks. Bull Mountain's inhabitants have evolved with the tastes of modern times, from corn whisky, to pot, to meth, and now the family wants in on the illegal gun market. Like their new product, the stakes are higher, the money bigger, and it brings a new partnership into the family business. "What happens on Bull Mountain stays on Bull Mountain," and there are plenty of skeletons buried in the mountain's soil to prove that family motto.
The opening chapter is that nine-pound sledge hammer, delivering a hit that you don't see coming -- and you remain pretty much that surprised through all the twists and turns, up to the very shocking end of a saga that unfolds through generations; a kind of redemption that has been steeped in hatred and blood for generations. Clayton Burroughs is the first of his kin to leave Bull Mountain, the first to seek out a life away from the family business of ill-begotten money, battered families, and drugs and booze, by becoming Sheriff in the town of Waymore Valley. Waymore seems years away from Bull Mountain, lifetimes for Clayton who is content keeping law and order in town and leaving the business and lawlessness of Bull Mountain alone -- until ATF Agent Holly comes to town and warns the sheriff of an impending move on Bull Mountain by law enforcement, and barters for Clayton's help. After years away from his childhood mountain home, Clayton makes the trip back up to Bull Mountain to meet with his estranged brother Hal. Hal and Clayton's great-granddaddy dug his first grave at age 9 yrs.old, and passed on the family traits to Hal, the current patriarch of the Burroughs's dark enterprise. And Hal is a whole new level of mean.
Bull Mountain is a complex story with psychological depth and insight that feels so authentic you could wonder about the author's own history. The pacing is breathless, teeth gritting, and the plot so captivating you have to remember to blink. These are some of the best-written-worst-characters in Southern Grit Lit.; the USA's version of the Mexican Cartels and the Italian Mafia, with a bit more of Appalachian style bat-sh*t-crazy thrown in. It's heavy with descriptive violence, language, drugs, and sex, but those elements are what define this genre of Southern Lit. (tagged *Hillbilly Noir* by Daniel Goodrell) -- occupied by the talents of Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, William Gay, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, Tim McLaurin, Lewis Nordan, even new-comer David Joy (Where All Light Tends to Go). It might be time to add another genre to the burgeoning Southern Lit roster.
A good, albeit disturbing, read that's a couple of notches deeper than Winter's Bone and closer to No Country For Old Men in intensity. Not quite as polished as McCarthy and a few of the greats in this pantheon, if you can have gritty and polished in the same review, but Panowich's debut grit sure does shine. Can't wait to see what he does next.
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