Bull Mountain, published this year in both the USA and UK, has achieved rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. It is Brian Panowich’s first novel, although he had previously written short stories, two of which won the 2013 Spinetingler Award in 2013. He is now being hailed as the new John Steinbeck. Bull Mountain is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. Both involve a brother versus brother feud. Likewise, his gritty, macho style recalls Steinbeck’s. He is however a much darker novelist than Steinbeck: I would say, Steinbeck meets Brett Easton Ellis meets Stephen King. It is an extraordinary first novel; Panowich writes like an experienced author in an understated but powerful way.
- Brian Panowich
The novel is set in rural Georgia, with all that that implies in the way of family feuds, unfinished history, racial tension, love, lust and loss. Bull Mountain lies at the centre of a tract of forested territory that the Burroughs family claim as their own and from which they jealously exclude outsiders, not hesitating to kill or injure them in the process. They have every reason to do so: the Burroughs are unapologetic outlaws and remote, inaccessible Bull Mountain is central to their criminal operation. They have a history of crime, including producing and selling illicit liquor in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s they were the largest above-ground marijuana farmers on the East Coast. Now they are the dominant suppliers of methamphetamine in the Southern States. Potential competitors and representatives of the law get eliminated cheerfully and unconcernedly. One unlucky fellow is tied to a tree; two of the Burroughs then start a forest fire round him.
“From a safe distance Clayton watched his brother get comfortable against a tree stump and close his eyes. He looked rested and content as the burning man’s screams became something else. Something unnatural. Clayton would never forget that sound. He wondered if Hal could even hear it at all, or if all he heard was the hornets.”
To the unmixed disapproval of his family, Clayton Burroughs reacts against this background and joins the State Police; eventually becoming the Sherriff of Bull Mountain. This is like a member of an IRA family joining the Parachute Regiment. He is now the black sheep of the family. Usually Clayton exists in an uneasy truce with his brother Halford (Hal) and the rest of the clan. This changes when a federal agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms appears in Clayton’s office with a plan to shut down Bull Mountain for good. His agenda sets brother against brother, strains family loyalties to the limit and sets Clayton on a path to self-destruction. The end, when it comes, is shocking and unforeseeable.
Why don’t I award five mushroom-heads? Probably because I am not a psychopath, unlike most of the male characters in the novel. This book is not for the faint-hearted; after a while even I found the endless cycle of violence, mayhem and murder a bit disturbing. There is no light relief. If rural Georgia is really like that, I am happy never to set foot there.
3.5 Mr Mushroom-Heads