It’s been said that our first taste of mythology is our family history. Brian Panowich’s debut novel, Bull Mountain, portrays a family poisoned by their own mythology. The Burroughs clan has run Bull Mountain, Georgia, for generations, spreading their outlaw empire from moonshine to marijuana to meth, in an uninterrupted flow of crime and power, until one son, Clayton, abandons the family and becomes a county sheriff, pitting brother against brother and the present against the past.
The novel is a sprawling tale that interweaves the storylines of many members of the family: Clayton and his brother Halford; their father Gareth; Clayton’s wife Kate; and Simon, an ATF agent sent to dismantle the whole Burroughs empire; as well as a few other key players. The structure is reminiscent of Don Winslow’s Mexican cartel novel The Power of the Dog, and it works well for Panowich, with only a few slips. (In one section Clayton is opening a file, and then at the start of the next section two lines later he’s still opening the file). Moving from character to character builds suspense and shows the powerful impact this family has had over the course of generations, their poisonous influence changing the lives of everyone who falls under the shadow of Bull Mountain.
The mountain becomes a real and menacing place under Panowich’s pen, a place as constraining as Daniel Woodrell’s Ozarks or Tom Franklin’s Deep South. One of the tentpoles of Southern noir is the impact of place, how the setting can create and drive conflicts. This plays to one of Panowich’s strengths, as he is an assured and powerful writer of visceral settings. Early on, he describes the mountain as a place with air “so thick with the smell of wet earth, it clogged Gareth’s nose. He tried breathing through his mouth, but within minutes he was licking grit off his teeth.” With the mountain, Panowich creates a place of beauty and danger, a place we are intimidated by but strangely drawn to, just as the characters are. It’s a place where outsiders don’t fare well. A character foreign to the mountain struggles as all the “open country made him feel like, at any time, he could lose his footing and spin right off the planet.” Panowich is skilled at rooting the reader deeply to the earth or throwing them off its axis with just a few words. Panowich’s strong writing makes his occasional slips into cliché that much more noticeable. Receptionists are described as “mousy,” characters “barrel through like a freight train,” etc. But these instances are few and far between. The novel sparkles with fresh language.
Panowich’s female characters, however, are somewhat troublingly drawn. It’s tough to tell if their characterization is simply generic, or sexist: the long-suffering wife who quietly ignores her husband’s drinking; the women trying to fix broken men while being aroused by their violence and quietly annoyed when they don’t put down the toilet seat. Perhaps what we’re seeing is not weak women but a weak understanding of the women by the male protagonists, who seem to only see women as untrustworthy whores or peaceful madonnas. That’s likely why it’s so surprising when Clayton’s wife, Kate, roars to life by the end of the novel. Still, it will be good to see Panowich craft more strong female characters.
It takes talent to write violence—another tentpole of Southern noir—in a way that is both beautiful and horrifying. Panowich has that talent. He describes one character beating another, “snapping the bones in [his] hands like campfire kindling,” eventually leaving him with eyes “swollen shut behind shiny purple knots.” But the worst violence in the novel starts on the first page: the violence wrought by the distorted mythology of the Burroughs clan. The family uses its boys’ loyalty “the same way a master carpenter used a hammer,” sometimes with gentle nudges, but other times “with all the subtlety of a nine-pound sledge.”
Clayton is the only one to break free from the mythology. He joins the law to “buy back the soul of a family that had grown accustomed to being soulless.” He’s a man torn between his love for his outlaw family and his duty to do right, and he’s “struggled with which side of that fence he was on ever since he could remember. The sadness this place brought him was almost equal to the pride it filled him with.”
His brother, Halford, is a recklessly violent man, “thick as a redwood but angular and solid like stacked cinder blocks.” And while he could easily be written as a one-note blight, an infestation of evil like some invasive beetle savaging the landscape, he’s not. Halford loves Bull Mountain and the people on it deeply, but it’s a love gone too far. Instead of thinking the mountain is God’s gift to him, he falls into the trap of thinking that he is the mountain’s god. His story is perhaps the saddest of the group: a man doing a terrible wrong, believing he’s doing right.
The conflict between these brothers is just one of many that saturate this book, and the conflict that ultimately ends the novel is one that even the most astute readers likely won’t see coming. It’s a fine debut, and readers of Southern noir will eagerly await Brian Panowich’s next novel.
– Brandon Dudley is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, where he is assistant fiction editor of the Sierra Nevada Review. His work has previously appeared in storySouth, and he was a finalist in the Slice magazine Bridging the Gap competition. He is a former journalist and currently teaches high school English in Maine, where he lives with his wife and two sons.