Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
Published by Putnam
Publication date: July 7, 2015
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Suspense
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The first words that come to mind when I think about Brian Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain, are: blown away. Every day for a week after finishing it whenever I thought of it, I shook my head. It’s that good. It’s the story of three generations of the Burroughs family living in north Georgia. For decades they’ve lived outside the law by running moonshine, then marijuana, and now meth throughout the South from their secluded land on Bull Mountain. Now there are only two brothers left: Halford, who runs the mountain and the drug enterprise, and Clayton, who split off from the family to become the county sheriff in the small town of Waymore Valley. It’s 2015 and a federal agent has appeared in Clayton’s office to let him know Halford’s empire is about to come crashing down unless Clayton helps.
Like any other well-written family saga, the past is needed to explain the present. Panowich does this with carefully separated chapters, filling in the family history. The novel opens all the way back in 1949 when 9-year-old Gareth watches his father kill his uncle in order to keep the family land from being sold to developers. He then has to help bury the body. I haven’t read such a shocking beginning to a novel since Sara Taylor’s The Shore. But it’s not just shock that makes Bull Mountain addictive. That’s the easy way out. Instead, Panowich deftly moves the characters and the timeline between past and present, making for a story filled with plot points and people who seem to have no relevance until you step back and are stunned to see a perfect landscape.
Perfect in its composition, but otherwise, a hellscape of violence. This novel has been called hillbilly noir and it’s a good description because Bull Mountain is dark and rough. Brutality is commonplace in the Burroughs’s world, so even though I’m not a fan of violence, in Bull Mountain there is no other choice. For me, the story was more than enough to overcome any squeamishness, as evidenced by my 5-star rating. Panowich creates a world and drops the reader smack dab in the middle of it with no way out until the final sentence.