Panowich grounds his stellar debut thriller in a family betrayal that infects one generation after another, two brothers in conflict over the future of the family legacy on Bull Mountain in the backwoods Georgia hills. That dark seed is planted in 1949, one brother planning to finance future generations with a land sale, the other determined to expand a once- lucrative bootleg whisky trade into the growing drug market. Riley Burroughs loses the argument, the consequences haunting Cooper into old age, Cooper’s son, Gareth, later assuming the reigns as family patriarch.
In 2015, there are two Burroughs brothers living on Bull Mountain, all that’s left of Gareth’s three sons. Buckley recently killed by the feds, Halford runs what is now a flourishing meth business, following Gareth’s lead in going off the mountain to assure a stream of weapons from Florida to defend their territory. Younger brother Clayton Burroughs wears a silver star as sheriff of Waymore Valley, trying to uphold the law while his brother oversees the illegal side of family business. There is bad blood between the two, a reckoning on the horizon; so when ATF Agent Simon Holly appears in Clayton’s office with a proposition, the youngest Burroughs is inclined to give it serious consideration. Holly says the feds know every detail of Halford’s organization, even his Florida connection, prepared to make a move on the mountain and clean it up. The agent suggests a way to avoid that conflagration, one that will allow Halford to walk away. Clayton feels he has no choice but to approach his brother with the offer, even though the hatred Hal feels for Clayton is deep and volatile.
Moving deftly between characters and events, from the 1940s to current days, Panowich paints a gritty, realistic picture of the evolution of a family born to live and die on Bull Mountain. From the incident between Riley and Cooper Burroughs in 1949, Gareth a witness to the act that drives a wedge through the heart of the family, to the years in between, vital characters play their parts in a drama that of the law-abiding and the renegade, spouses, children, siblings, business partners, motorcycle gangs, hookers, an angry young man on a mission and the natural enmity of federal authorities and mountain people. The sprawling saga reveals the arrogance, duplicity and dysfunction of a family born to criminal enterprise in a shrinking world, the values of those who find identity in place threatened by those who would take it from them.
Save Clayton’s best intentions to finally bring peace to a mountain too long mired in violence, the good men in Bull Mountain are few and memorable. Their women are tough, honed by hard-living with these stubborn men, some unable to bear the weight, one badly broken by the actions of a brutal stranger, the source of revenge a long time coming, a scorched-earth plan for destruction that will mow down arrogant and prideful men, bring many to their knees. Salted with the violence and crude language of an outlaw way of life, there are tender moments of love and redemption, albeit few. Like a bucking horse, Panowich rides this unpredictable tale through the halls of hell, always shocking, revelatory, provocative, essentially and spectacularly human, difficult to put out of mind after the final page.