I can never resist novels about the people in the Appalachian Mountains, probably because I grew up at the foot of those mountains. Maybe it’s the strong Scots-Irish heritage but, as my grandfather would say, nothing beats mountain folk for sheer ornery cussedness. And they have a strong distrust of government of any kind. One of my favorite stories is about the moonshine-making clan whose child was in mom’s classroom. Said child proudly spilled the beans one day in all innocence that their house sat squarely on the state line. When the Virginia revenuers came to catch them, they’d hightail it over to the North Carolina side of the house and, when the North Carolina revenuers appeared, they’d skedaddle over to the Virginia side of the house. All the kids in mom’s class nodded sagely at the brilliance of this tactic much to mom’s dismay. The family clan in Bull Mountain is that kind of family. They’ve been outsmarting the “evil” revenuers for generations and they have no intention of ever changing. If you like Southern fiction or just stories about stubborn families then read on.
We’re near the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, part of the Great Smokeys near northwest Georgia. The Burroughs clan has lived in these hills for centuries, eking out a livelihood the best way they could. The mountains are unforgiving and they’ve learned how to live in peace with the often harsh conditions, and actually turn those mountains into a safe haven. They come from moonshine-making stock. They didn’t just make moonshine, they perfected it and couldn’t make enough of it because it didn’t take long for folks from all the states around to learn the Burroughs made some of the best shine on the East Coast.
They were proud of their secret recipe and their cunning in avoiding capture during Prohibition. Revenuers and later the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) didn’t stand a chance in hell of catching them. And the Burroughs were not ones to get stuck in time; as things changed around them, they changed with the times. It didn’t take a genius to see that moonshine was just the tip of the money-making iceberg – drugs were the future for a clan who was well established and knew how to evade the law.
And that decision was when the trouble really started because everyone in the family wasn’t happy with the direction in which the family business was going. They couldn’t argue with the kinds of money there was to be made from drugs but why were they messing with a good thing? They knew moonshine backward and forward, and they had a phenomenal reputation for their shine. Drugs were a dirty, nasty business, something else entirely. Still they couldn’t argue with the clan leader and soon money was rolling in from their shine, pot, and meth distribution channels to six neighboring states.
“’You’re not seeing the big picture, Coop. We should be doing better than okay. We should be working smarter, not harder. The stills ain’t bringing in what they used to. Drinking ain’t illegal no more. We can’t survive off the back-door bars and pool halls. The money’s drying up…It’s not the same business it used to be. The rest of the world is getting smarter, and we’re staying the same. The odds are against us. This deal with Puckett is going to be triple what we’d make in ten years of runnin’ shine…’”
“They were almost to the mouth of Bear Creek before Cooper said another word to Rye. He spoke in a whisper. ‘You already made the deal, didn’t you?’
Rye felt more relieved than ashamed. It was finally out there. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it’s done. They’re sending one of their people down with the papers today. I know you don’t see it now, but someday you’ll thank me for it. I promise you. You’ll see.’”
The whole Burroughs clan lived on the mountain and worked in the family business, except for one person; the black sheep of the family, Clayton Burroughs. Clayton broke from the family not just by moving off of the mountain and turning his back on this generations-old illegal empire but by doing the unthinkable, becoming the sheriff of the nearest town. Talk about supreme irony. Clayton is a man with a conscience who cares about the town he lives in. He just wants to live in peace and it looks like he might actually get to do that, at least until an ATF agent shows up in his office. Although the clan may have thought the ATF was giving them a wide berth, the ATF had been plotting about how to bring them down once and for all. It’s the day Clayton has dreaded ever since he became sheriff – he’s going to have to go after his own family.
“Clayton waved away the [Sunday] small talk like it was a gnat buzzing in his face, and leaned back in his chair.
‘Are you here to size up my staff, or do you want to tell me what the FBI wants with my office?’
‘I’m with the ATF.’
Holly stiffened up a bit and gave Clayton a practiced hardcase stare. The sheriff was unimpressed.
‘Spare me the intensity, agent. It makes you look a little silly. I know why you’re here. I wish it was something else, but it’s not. It never is. Just get to it.’ The throbbing behind Clayton’s eyes was on the brink of becoming a full-fledged headache, and he could feel his Sunday morning going straight down the crapper.
‘Right to the point. I can appreciate that. In a nutshell, I’m here to take your brother out of the game.’
…’I wish that could have been the zinger you wanted it to be. I mean, here you are, so excited to sit there and say that, you couldn’t even wait until Monday.’”
Is the ATF setting Clayton up as well as his family or are they being straight with him about what’s about to come down? Can he figure out how to fix this so it ends as peacefully as possible or is he going to walk into the mountain version of the apocalypse? Is there any way to salvage anything or will it end in a “Mexican standoff”?
Clayton is the central character of this novel, a man who really wants to live a normal life filled with a wife and children and a career he can be proud of. He really loves the small town where he’s sheriff and he’s done a lot to clean up that town. It’s almost as if he’s trying to single-handedly undo all the wrongs his family is still intent on committing. He even tries to talk some sense into them, when he knows it’s going to fall on deaf ears. I liked him from the beginning. He’s a decent human being who gets put into the worst situation possible – in the crossroad between an agent determined to destroy his family and a family so arrogant they think they can never be taken down…and who would rather destroy themselves than give an inch. Can he pull a miracle out of his hat? This is a family with more than one dark secret…redemption, revenge, and so much more play out in this saga.
Although Bull Mountain is Brian Panowich’s debut novel, it certainly doesn’t read that way. He captures the essence of those mountains beautifully, and certain types of people who live there. You might think this is a plot-driven novel. Although it is to some extent, it is the in-depth multi-generational charactizations and patterns that make this twisted family story so riveting. It’s a story told through several points of view, giving the reader insight into all sides of this saga. It was one of those novels I couldn’t put down. I hope Bull Mountain is the first of many novels by this Georgia author!
Can’t wait to read it? Bull Mountain is available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below. If you download it as an e-book, you can have it to read immediately!
I’d love to get your comments on Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich, and/or this review.