Books | April 2016
“‘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.” So begins the opening chapter of Bull Mountain, the debut novel of Brian Panowich which is getting the attention of readers and writers alike. With rave reviews from respected Southern literature authors including Wiley Cash and Tom Franklin, Bull Mountain is gritty, intense, and nearly impossible to put down.
At the onset of the novel, readers first encounter the Burroughs clan and a wild ride of darkness and violence unfolds from there. The story is told from multiple points of view, as the tale of a family steeped in generations of crime and vengeance in the Georgia backwoods is masterfully woven by Panowich. While the family’s legacy is permeated with the illegal substance trade (from moonshine to marijuana and more), the sheriff of the town, Clayton Burroughs, is one of their own, making his position ever-complicated and calling his loyalty constantly into question. Though Clayton’s life is ruled by lawfulness and duty in terms of his job, his convoluted past and family ties give him little peace. The question of his allegiance is never far from his thoughts.
To make matters more complicated, an ATF agent by the name of Agent Holly arrives on the scene early in the novel. While Clayton has been approached by other agents in the past where his crime-riddled family is concerned, this agent seems different and his proposition leaves plenty of wiggle room for Clayton’s family. This is a relief to the sheriff, who has refused to be a part of any operation that would land his brothers in prison. Holly promises that Clayton’s family will remain free and untouched as long as they cooperate with this plan to bring down an even higher-up ring of criminals who they have been involved with for years. This plan will force Clayton to examine his bonds to his family, his loyalty to his job in law enforcement, and the history he shares with his brothers.
In addition to the multiple perspectives, the novel moves forward and backwards in time so that readers can understand where the Burroughs family started and how this complicated set of circumstances has come to be. Panowich’s characters are indescribably real and each is full of the sort of depth that can only be created by the most gifted of authors. While the crime and violence at the root of the story may seem hard to grasp for many readers at first, the complexities and nuanced detail given to the men in the story helps make them, on some level, relatable and understandable by the end of the tale.
For readers and lovers of Southern literature, Panowich will be one of the most exciting new discoveries in a long time. His voice is powerful and courageous. His novel creates a picture as realistic and brilliant as it is chilling. And while on the surface, this book focuses on a disturbing aspect of these characters, it manages to uncover so much about the multifaceted nature of family juxtaposed against the lush backdrop of Appalachia.
The novel calls into memory the timeless work of Cormac McCarthy, as well as that of Larry Brown and William Gay. Stylistically, the book packs an undeniable punch and will be loved by fans of Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. The focus on the theme of family allows just about any reader to connect with this novel, but it is the author’s careful attention to even the tiniest detail that makes it so captivating and impossible to walk away from unchanged. It has been said that writing is the painting of the voice, and this novel is a shining example of how such a talent truly does exist. This book will undoubtedly reinvigorate the world of Southern literature with its electrifying and unforgettable story.
The Dark Side of Appalachia
Brian Panowich’s debut novel presents a dark tale of crime and family set
against the backdrop of Georgia’s beautiful mountains
Story by Shana Raley-Lusk