Country Noir: Like Lions by Brian Panowich

“Like most of the people who lived in the foothills of McFalls County, the dogwood tree did whatever it damn well pleased.”

In Like Lions, the sequel to his sprawling, multigenerational crime drama Bull Mountain, Panowich not only manages to exceed his first work but also to produce new and shocking Burroughs family revelations without undercutting Bull Mountain.

Like Lions opens in the aftermath of the events of Bull Mountain.  The king, Halford Burroughs, is dead and his assets seized, but his Bull Mountain criminal empire has not been dismantled.  It is nominally headed by his former lieutenant, Scabby Mike, but everyone now looks to Halford’s killer and brother, McFalls County sheriff Clayton Burroughs, as the new king of Bull Mountain.

Clayton himself may not be interested in playing that role, but nature abhors a vacuum.  The vultures are circling.  An attack on a Burroughs underground bar sparks a feud with another hillbilly Georgia crime family, the Viners.

It isn’t just ongoing criminal business that is at stake.  A whole lot of people think Halford left millions of dollars buried on the mountain, and no one knows where.

Like Lions is again focused on Clayton.  Perhaps even more so than Bull Mountain, because there are far fewer flashbacks.  Two characters who didn’t get enough page time, Clayton’s wife Kate and Scabby Mike, play a larger role in this book.  In addition to the Viner family, Panowich introduces Wallace Cobb, an old flame of Kate’s and a tracker/assassin operating out of Atlanta who has come back home.

More is asked of those other characters, but Clayton took the events of Bull Mountain hard.  He’s crawled back into the bottle.  It wouldn’t bug me as much as a reader if he wasn’t such a terrible drunk.  But cracking open a bottle of whiskey usually leads to a borderline incoherent Clayton half an hour later.  A high-functioning alcoholic he is not.

Country noir novels in general, in my opinion, are poorly suited for sequels.  And a book like Bull Mountain that so heavily relies on family revelations are tough to follow up with a sequel.  Lose the family revelations and you lose a lot of the oomph from the first book.  But the wrong revelations can undercut the first book as well, either by reducing the earlier revelations or raising an unanswerable question about why they weren’t already revealed.  Panowich avoids all of that, delivering more revelations that only add to rather than detract from those of the first book.  This is no mean feat.

Panowich is more to the pulp side than the literary side of the subgenre, but his prose has its moments:

The orange burn of the evening was slowing lulling the giants to sleep, stealing their details.  The ridges and ravines had disappeared, leaving only the Goliath silhouettes towering in the distance.  It was beautiful—and telling.  That sky would only last a few minutes.  It was the perfect example of how fleeting beauty could be up there before everything was swallowed by pitch black.

Panowich still falls just outside my top tier of country noir writers (in with David Joy below Ron Rash, Daniel Woodrell, Taylor Brown, and James McLaughlin), but I am for damn sure going to keep my eye on him.

4.5 of 5 Stars.

 

Disclosure: I received a review copy of Like Lions via NetGalley.

 

Amber on Like Lion’s at The Pedestrian Equestrian.

Oline H. Cogdill on Like Lion’s at National Post.

Koeur on Like Lion’s at Koeur’s Book Reviews.

 

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