One of the subset genres of fiction that is often used, but rarely triumphs in bringing something original to the table, is the small town crime novel, more specifically, the southern small town crime novel. While it is popular to depict backwoods, corrupt areas that are inhabited by generations of outlaws, the difficulty of not falling into common tropes and cliches is a fine line, that unfortunately, is probably impossible to execute by just the act of practicing, rewriting, and tuning a story. It comes down to authenticity, some writers have it, and others simply cannot emulate it in this type of novel in order to create a truly great novel. Many are good, but very few are great.
Influenced by the tradition of Elmore Leonard, Daniel Woodrell, and Cormac McCarthy comes a Georgian firefighter's debut novel, Bull Mountain. A quote from McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian, is displayed before the opening pages which already brings great expectations. Thankfully, Brian Panowich delivers, storming onto the scene with an epic southern tale that establishes him as a new voice for southern writers.
The most interesting thing about novels like these, is that there is rarely any plot that has not been told before. That is commonly attributed to all fiction, but with novels that focus on small southern towns plagued by violence, drug corruption, and generations of family mistakes, this statement rings even more true. With that being said, Panowich does not add anything new to the genre, instead, he succeeds in the most profound way, by telling a familiar story with an original voice and glorious prose.
It is all at once a noir, a crime mystery, a small town story, and even a work of literary fiction. All of the greats in the genre share a similar quality, and it is not their ability to tell a good story, because many do that, but it is their proficiency in the way they are able to tell that good tale.
Bull Mountain is set in Panowich's home state of Georgia. It is the story of the Burroughs family, crisscrossing between present and pass to tell a multigenerational epic about how one well known family, in a remote southern area, came to be one of the most infamous group of people residing along the mountain range. Panowich's protagonist, Clayton Burroughs is the Sheriff in those parts, while his brother, Halford, is the area's main outlaw. Right away, the reader is given a reason to be interested in the character dynamics as Clayton is the Burroughs family member that is attempting to walk a new path and Halford is the exact opposite, comfortable reveling in his murderous and drug running ways.
Panowich introduces Simon Holly, an ATF Agent, who is investigating a connection of Halford's. Throughout the course of the narrative, we are introduced to members of the Burroughs' clan from the past, giving reasons to the decades of bloodshed, unrest, and uneasiness between family members and others in the community. An unabashed literary page-turner, Bull Mountain, takes readers along for a ride full of well timed twists and turns, and the shocking family secret that causes the inevitable climax.
As a resident of the south, Panowich has obviously become knowledgeable to the regional dialect, but turning that language into convincing dialogue is another challenge in its own right. In what often cripples novels of this flavor, the conversations between the Burroughs clan, between Clayton and his wife, Kate, as well as, Agent Holly and Clayton, brings the characters to life. Surrounded by straight forward, yet, surprisingly elegant exposition, the small town transforms from mere fiction into a captivating tale that feels as real as a a true crime book.
Panowich did his research as each section of the novel, feels in line with the time period that it represents. He details the transition from moonshine production, to marijuana crops, and into the modern day proliferation of methamphetamine in rural areas like his setting of East Georgia. It bares many similarities to the television show, Justified, not just with plot points, setting, and characters, but in its ability to constantly question right and wrong, and the moral ambiguities that are caused by deep roots and longstanding bloodlines, whether pure or sullied.
Once every few years, a writer comes along that pays tribute to the greats before him by penning a novel that adds an extension to its genre, to be loved by writers before him as well as the ones that will, in turn, be influenced by Panowich himself. Bull Mountain is an emphatic win for the somewhat niche genre of Southern Noir, spliced with the poignancy of literary fiction that comes together to create one of the best multi-generational family sagas in years.