Part Dashiell Hammett, part Hamlet and, yes, perhaps a short shot of Hazzard County, Augusta-bred writer Brian Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain, due July 7 from Putnam Books, is that rare piece of work that manages to entertain without sacrificing its elevated tone and tread on familiar tropes while remaining surprising and fresh.
The story of a familial criminal empire embedded in the mountains of North Georgia, it’s a book that never lets a rather complicated plot and structure get in the way of what, I believe, is Panowich’s greatest gift – the ability to build layered, authentic characters and the world in which they live.
At the center of the story are the Burroughs brothers. Halford runs a family business built on moonshine, marijuana and meth with a violent iron fist up on the titular mountain. Clayton is the long-serving sheriff of the town nestled at Bull Mountain’s base.
For years, sibling animosity and a silent agreement has kept each out of the others’ business. The contract, however, becomes null and void when a federal agent swoops into town with a plan that just might allow the Burroughs clan to clear its name.
The resulting story allows readers entrée into a world where deals are often dirty, violence is the coin of the realm and family ties – to the land and each other – are conflicted and complicated.
Like Dickey and Steinbeck before him – two writers I feel certain are foundational influences – Panowich understands that great writing can include the sort of labyrinthine twists and turns that are an essential component to Bull Mountain, but only if the real work – graceful prose, compelling characters and a true sense of place – is accomplished first.
And that’s the real accomplishment here. While his characters – a motley assortment of murderers, hired muscle, addicts and outlaw bikers – are not the kind of people you might want to spend time with, their compelling stories are gripping reading.
Although Panowich has been known to refer to his distinctive style as Southern Noir, he has, in truth, developed a voice and style that defies easy reference. Certainly there are elements that are both country fried and hardboiled, but to distill the eclectic elements in this novel into such simple stylistic references seems as criminal as the characters he inhabits it with.
What Panowich has created is something far more meaningful and thoughtful. While the sometimes pitch black tone and explosive violence might put off the book club crowd a bit, it is a novel well worth sharing, discussing and placing in that premium bookshelf spot.