With Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich has given us a sprawling, multigenerational crime saga. A hillbilly Godfather. You know what you’re in for when you see the family tree. Country noir novels should have family trees like fantasy novels have maps.
Bull Mountain starts with one fratricide. It won’t be the last.
The Burroughs are kings of Bull Mountain (similar to being Gods of Howl Mountain). From moonshine to marijuana to meth, Bull Mountain has been home to a Burroughs led criminal enterprise for the last century.
The narrative constantly jumps back and forth in time among family members. The chronology and POV are clearly marked, thankfully. On Bull Mountain, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
After opening with Riley and Cooper Burroughs, the narrative is mostly concerned with Cooper’s son Gareth setting up the current iteration of the Burroughs empire and the current day conflict between his sons Halford, scion to the Burroughs empire, and Clayton, the white sheep of the family and sheriff of McFalls County. It says something about the perspective of the locals that they are willing to elect a member of a notorious crime family as sheriff. Clayton isn’t dirty, but with just two deputies, he also isn’t in any sort of position to do anything about a brother who seriously outmans and outguns him. But then ATF Special Agent Simon Holly shows up to kick to the hornets’ nest . . .
With plenty of blood and buckshot and more than one carefully plotted, unexpected switchback in the story, what follows is one heck of a crime novel. Which is about as close to a criticism as I’ll get. Bull Mountain sits as firmly in the general crime camp as in the country noir camp (the country noir being, in my view, a very special type of crime drama). The setting and subject matter are pure country noir, but the plot shares as much or more in common with The Godfather and The Cartel as with One Foot in Eden and Winter’s Bone. Country noir sits comfortably at the center of the overlap between pulp and literary—Bull Mountain is well on the pulp side. (Which isn’t itself a criticism. Those terms are value-neutral.)
It’s a damned enjoyable read but doesn’t quite make it into my top tier of country noir works. The good news is that the sequel, Like Lions, is even better.
One nifty thing Panowich does, at least in the paperback, is provide a soundtrack for Bull Mountain and a list of books to read next. Everything on both lists is in the Hillbilly Highways wheelhouse, and I am pleased to see Panowich recognize that “there is not much difference between the two art forms.”
4 of 5 Stars.
Blu Gilliand on Bull Mountain at October Country.
Scott Montgomery on Bull Mountain at Mystery People.
Tom Leins on Bull Mountain at Dirty Books.
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