Bull Mountain Author Brian Panowich at Malaprop's Tonight
“[Panowich] pulls off [a] daunting undertaking with astounding success . . . The storytelling is mesmerizing, with virtually every chapter set in a different timeline and focused on a single character, but the sense of immediacy carries over into each era. And while the violence is shocking in its coldhearted brutality, it’s as aesthetically choreographed as any ballet.”—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
Tonight (July 15) at Malaprop’s Books, 7PM
From a remarkable new voice in Southern fiction, a multigenerational saga of crime, family, and vengeance. Brian Panowich’s Bull Mountain, is a southern crime saga set in the North Georgia mountains. He has several stories available in print and online collections, including Trouble in The Heartland, Reloaded: Both Barrels Vol. 2 (One Eye Press 2013), Gloves Off ( Near To The Knuckle Press 2013). His story “Sixteen Down” was the grand prize winner of Evolved Publishing’s short story contest in 2012 and is the lead story in their fiction anthology, Evolution Vol. 2. Two of his stories, “If I Ever Get Off This Mountain” and “Coming Down The Mountain”, were nominated for a Spinetingler award in 2013.
Clayton Burroughs comes from a long line of outlaws. For generations, the Burroughs clan has made its 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 took 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, test loyalties, and could lead Clayton down a path to self-destruction.
In a sweeping narrative spanning decades and told from alternating points of view, the novel brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the mountain and its inhabitants: forbidding, loyal, gritty, and ruthless. A story of family—the lengths men will go to protect it, honor it, or in some cases destroy it—Bull Mountain is an incredibly assured debut that heralds a major new talent in fiction.
An excerpt from Bull Mountain
“Family,” the old man said to no one.
The word hung in a puff of frozen breath, before dissipating into the early morning fog. Riley Burroughs used that word the same way a master carpenter used a hammer. Sometimes he just gave it a gentle tap to nudge one of his kin toward his way of thinking, but sometimes he used it with all the subtlety of a nine-pound sledge.
The old man sat in a wooden rocker, slowly squeaking it back and forth on the worn and buckled pine slats of the cabin’s front porch. The cabin was one of several hunting shelters his family had built all over Bull Mountain throughout the years. Rye’s Grandfather, Johnson Burroughs, built this one. Rye imagined the elder statesman of the Burroughs clan sitting in that very spot fifty years earlier and wondered if his brow ever got this heavy. He was sure it did.
Rye pulled a pouch of dried tobacco from his coat and rolled a smoke in his lap. Ever since he was a boy, he’d come out here to watch Johnson’s Gap come to life. This early, the sky was a purple bruise. The churning chorus of frogs and crickets was beginning to transition into the scurry of vermin and birdsong—a woodland changing of the guard. On frigid mornings like this one, the fog banked low over the veins of Kudzu like a cotton blanket, so thick you couldn’t see your feet to walk through it. It always made Rye smile to know that the clouds everyone else looked up to see, he looked down on from the other side. He reckoned that must be how God felt.
The sun had already begun to rise behind him, but this gap was always the last place to see it.
The shadow cast down from the Western Ridge kept this section of the mountain almost a full ten degrees cooler than the rest of it. It would be well into the afternoon before the sun could dry up all the dew that made the forest shimmer. Only thin beams of light broke through the heavy canopy of oak trees and Scotch pine. As a kid, Rye used to believe those rays of light warming his skin were the fingers of God, reaching down though the trees to bless this place—to look out for his home. But as a man, he’d grown to know better. The children running underfoot and the womenfolk might have some use for that superstitious nonsense, but Riley reckoned if there was some Sunday school God looking out for the people on this mountain, then the job wouldn’t always fall on him.
The old man sat and smoked.
The sound of tires crunching gravel soured the morning. Rye tamped out his smoke, and watched his younger brother’s old Ford flatbed pull up the drive. Cooper Burroughs climbed out and snatched his rifle from the mount on the back window. Cooper was Riley’s half bother, born nearly sixteen years apart, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them side by side. They both had the chiseled features of their shared father, Thomas Burroughs, but carried the weight of life on Bull Mountain heavy in the jowls, making both men appear much older then they were. Cooper pulled his hat down over his shaggy red hair and grabbed a backpack from the front seat. Rye watched as Cooper’s nine-year-old son, Gareth, appeared from the passenger side and walked around the truck to join his father. Rye shook his head and breathed out the last of the cold smoke in his lungs.
It’s just like Cooper to bring a buffer when there was a chance of tempers getting flared. He knows I wouldn’t put an ass whuppin’ on him in front of his boy. Too bad he can’t use them smarts when it matters.
Rye stood up and opened his arms.
“Good morning, brother…and nephew.”
Cooper didn’t answer right away, or bother to hide his distain. He curled up his lip, and spit a slick string of brown tobacco juice at Rye’s feet.
“Save it, Rye, we’ll get to it soon enough. I got to get some food in me before I can stomach listening to your bullshit.”
Cooper wiped the sticky trail of spit from his beard. Rye dug his heels into the gravel, and balled his fists. The boy standing there be damned, he was ready to get this thing done. Gareth stepped between the two men in an attempt to ease the tension.
“Hey, Uncle Rye.”
Another few more seconds of stink-eye, then Rye broke his brother’s stare and squatted down to acknowledge his nephew. “Hey, there, young man,” Rye reached out to hug the boy, but Cooper shuffled his son past him and up the front steps of the cabin. Rye stood, dropped his arms, and tucked his hands into his coat. He took another solemn look out at the Sawtooth oaks and clusters of Maple, and thought again on his grandfather. Picturing him standing there doing the same thing Rye was doing now. Looking at the same trees. Feeling the same ache in his bones. It was going to be a long morning.
“You got to keep stirrin’ those eggs,” Cooper said, and took the wooden spoon from his son. He carved off a chunk of butter and dropped it into the bubbling yellow mixture. “You keep stirrin’ it ‘til it ain’t wet no more. Like this. See?”
“Yessir,” Gareth took the spoon back and did as he was shown.
Cooper fried some fatback and bacon in a cast iron skillet, and then served it up to his son and brother as if that pissing contest outside hadn’t just happened. That’s the way brothers do things. Gareth was the first to speak.
“Deddy said you killed a Grizzly out by this ridge back in the day.”
“He said that, did he?” Rye looked at his brother who sat shoveling eggs and fried meat into his mouth.
“Well, your Deddy ain’t right. It wasn’t no Grizzly. It was a brown bear.”
“Deddy said you killed it with one shot. He said nobody else could’a done that.”
“Well, I don’t reckon that’s true. You could’a took it down just the same.”
“How come you don’t got the head hanging up in here? That would sure be something to see.”
Rye waited for Cooper to answer that, but he didn’t look up from his food.
“Gareth, listen to me real good. That bear? I didn’t want to kill it. I didn’t do it to have something to see, or a story to tell. I killed it so we could make it through the winter. If you kill something on this mountain, you better have a damn good reason. We hunt for necessity up here. Fools hunt for sport. That bear kept us warm and fed us for months. I owed it that much. You understand what I mean by ‘I owed it’?”
“I think so.”
“I mean that I would have dishonored the life it led if I killed it just to have a trophy on that wall. That ain’t our way. We used every bit of it.”
“Even the head?”
“Even the head.”
Cooper piped up. “You hearing what your Uncle is telling you, boy?”
Gareth nodded at his Pa. “Yessir.”
“Good, ‘cause that’s a lesson worth learnin’. Now enough talking. Eat your breakfast so we can get on with it.”
They finished the rest of the meal in silence. As they ate, Rye studied Gareth’s face. It was perfectly round, with cheeks that stayed rosy no matter the weather, peppered with freckles. His eyes were set deep and narrow like his father’s. He’d have to open them real wide just for someone to tell the color. They were Cooper’s eyes. It was Cooper’s face, without the calico beard, or the grit…or the anger. Rye remembered when his brother looked like that. It felt like a hundred years ago.
When their bellies were full, the two older men grabbed their rifles and stretched cold, morning muscles. Cooper leaned down and adjusted the wool cap on his son’s head to cover the boy’s ears.
“You stay warm, and you stay close,” he said, “You get sick on me, your Mama will have my ass in a sling.”
The boy nodded, but his excitement was setting in and his eyes were fixed on the long guns. His father had let him practice with the .22, to get used to the recoil and feel of the scope, but he wanted to carry a man’s gun.
“Do I get to carry a rifle, Deddy?” he said, scratching at the wool cap where his father had pulled at it.
“Well, I don’t reckon you can shoot anything without one,” Cooper said, and lifted a .223 rifle down from the stone mantle. The gun wasn’t new, but it was heavy and solid. Gareth took the weapon and inspected it like his father had taught him. He made a show of it to prove the lessons had stuck.
“Let’s go,” he said, and the three of them took to the woods.