Bull Mountain Brian Panowich, review by Bruce Jacobs

Rising out of northeast Georgia's Appalachian Highlands, fictional Bull Mountain stands near Atlanta, the self-proclaimed capital of the New South, and Augusta, the tony home of the Masters golf tournament, where bad behavior is defined as peeking at a banned cellphone. In Brian Panowich's arresting first novel, Bull Mountain is home to the Burroughs family, a six-generation clan of outlaws whose attachment to the land passes father to son, along with a violent distrust of outsiders. As the first of the Burroughs to try to go straight and come down off the mountain, McFalls County Sheriff Clayton Burroughs describes his family legacy to the federal ATF agent who's attempting to bust the family crime stronghold: "No one gets to tell them what they can and cannot do on their own land.... Not on their mountain.... You can't sneak up on the man who spent his whole life in the woods sneaking up on things." As the Burroughs generations passed, the family crimes evolved with the times. Whatever governments forbid, outlaws provide--be it poached meat and fur, moonshine, marijuana or, in the 21st century, methamphetamine. Clayton's father, Gareth, burned up in a crank cookhouse fire ("You'd think the high-and-mighty king of Bull Mountain wouldn't go out like some lowly city tweeker"), his brother Buckley was ambushed and killed by the feds, and his last brother, Hal, now runs the mountain with sociopathic violence and bootleg assault rifles from a Jacksonville, Fla., biker gang. Bull Mountain is a Cain-and-Abel story of Clayton and Hal, good and evil, law and outlaws--but it is also the story of family (the first word of the novel) and its tenacious hold on generations.

Ever since Daniel Woodrell successfully launched the niche genre of "country noir" in the '80s, bookshelves have filled with crime novels set in the rural mountains and backwoods of the South. A road-weary singer-songwriter and professional firefighter in east Georgia, Panowich plants his Bull Mountain squarely on those same shelves among the classic works of Woodrell, Larry Brown and James Lee Burke. It's that good. As in the best of this lot, his minor lowlife characters are often the most entertaining--criminals such as Hal's big, black enforcer Val ("like a mountain of Kentucky coal in a flannel shirt") or the aging mastermind behind the gun dealers ("a few gray survivors stretched over his bald head in a comb-over that even he had to know looked ridiculous"). There are few women on the mountain (in the roles of either mother or whore--or both) except Clayton's wife, Kate, who serves as an anchor in his conflicted life. After Panowich's plot follows its twisting path to a surprising ending, it is clear that this is but the first of what could be a Bull Mountain run of fine cracker crime fiction.

Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

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ISBN: 9780399173967
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Published: G.P. Putnam's Sons - July 7th, 2015