Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Bull Mountain, by Brian Panowich

The "Godfather of Appalachia" vs. his cop brother.

Bull Mountain

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2015, 290 pages

The Godfather meets Daniel Woodrell in this Southern debut, a multigenerational saga of crime, family, and vengeance.

Clayton Burroughs comes from a long line of outlaws. For generations the Burroughs clan has made their home on Bull Mountain in North Georgia, running shine, pot, and meth over six state lines, virtually untouched by the rule of law.

To distance himself from his family's criminal empire, Clayton takes the job of sheriff in a neighboring community to keep what peace he can. But when a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms shows up at Clayton's office with a plan to shut down the mountain, his hidden agenda will pit brother against brother and test loyalties and could lead Clayton down a path to self-destruction.

This is a short, bloody ride, and while it might not have reached Cormac McCarthy levels of literary awesomeness, it certainly rivaled a McCarthy novel in violence.

Bull Mountain skips back and forth in time to tell the story of three generations of Burroughs — violent hillbilly outlaws who've owned Bull Mountain and the surrounding counties for generations. We first meet Cooper Burroughs in 1950, arguing with his brother during a hunting trip in the woods. They are taking Cooper's young son Gareth out for his first kill, but the brothers Burroughs are having a dispute. Cooper's brother wants to sell their valuable land and get the family out of the moonshine business to go legit. He is pragmatic, businesslike, far seeing. And he's already made the deal. Except he doesn't emerge from the woods alive.

Growing up with a father like that, Gareth, predictably, turns into a violent son-of-a-bitch who takes over from his daddy when Cooper starts losing his mind, demented by age, alcohol, and guilt. But in flashbacks going back and forth from his childhood to shortly before the story of Bull Mountain actually begins, we see the hints of soft-heartedness in Gareth, the boy he once was and the better man he could have become.

But he didn't. Instead, he turns into a violent, alcoholic, wife-beater who sits at the top of Bull Mountain like the Godfather of Appalachia, expanding the family's business into drugs, arms, and trafficking. In the 70s, he forms an alliance with a Florida biker gang that becomes an extended family. He is at the center of a criminal empire running up and down the South Atlantic coast.

Gareth has three sons. One's already come to a violent end. One is his heir, Hayford, who has taken over as the criminal overlord of north Georgia. And one is Clayton — the "good" Burroughs, who refused to join the family enterprise and instead became a sheriff, where he tries to keep law and order in his little town while ignoring his older brother up on the mountain. Until a federal agent comes to him with an offer he can't refuse.

Bull Mountain is a story of family, crime, and double-crosses. It skips generations and shifts between characters, giving us a look at all the Burroughs clan, their wives and their allies and their enemies, their sordid, troubled history, and their violent lifestyle. Of course the offer that the feds bring Clayton isn't quite what it seems, and the climax is the bloodbath we've been expecting all along, with a few sharp twists from a knife.

This was thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced, and surprising not a lot of wasted exposition despite covering three generations before the events of the main story.

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