THERE’S A SMALL, quiet moment in the opening pages of Brian Panowich’s debut novel, Bull Mountain, just after Cooper Burroughs murders his brother Rye over a decision to sell their family’s land: “Cooper Burroughs sat and chewed tobacco while he watched his nine-year-old son dig his first grave. There was more lesson in that than in killin’ any eight-point buck.”
This is one of the novel’s core themes distilled. The scene is a powerful moment of reflection in a story that is deeply about brotherhood and the lengths to which a man will go to attain and maintain what they feel is owed to them. Logic would dictate that, of course, burying a man — your uncle at that — would be a massive lesson to any child. Well, more like trauma. The lesson implied, that this would not be the last man nine-year-old Gareth was to bury, is a visceral introduction to the legacy of villainy inherent to the Burroughs family. From father to son, there’s a torch passed more for lighting the world on fire than providing a guiding light.
You’d be hard-pressed to believe Bull Mountain is the work of a debut author. Panowich juggles quite a bit of history with the Burroughs clan, jumping back and forth from the backwoods of Georgia in 1949 to its modern day — with as much modern sensibility as time could beat into it. What Panowich puts together is more than a history of family, but a chronology of the violence perpetrated for nearly a century in maintaining an empire built on bootleg hooch and drugs — not in the name of power, women, or money, but of home.
Panowich’s Southern grit is stubborn and gets into every crevice. The scars don’t fade. If anything, they reopen and bleed everywhere. The Burroughs family bury more than just bodies. Their history provides an examination of the question of nature vs. nurture. Is a man who he is because of where he is from, or does he have a choice in his own fate? The legacy of darkness the Burroughs inherit challenges Clayton Burroughs, the main protagonist of the novel, with his decision to uphold the very law his family has held in disdain for generations by becoming a sheriff — the enemy. Clayton sets himself at the hard opposite of his family, but the man isn’t without his own faults. Not a soul touched by the Burroughs, blood or hired or victimized, is a beacon of light; some folks are only dimmer than others.
Is violence bred? Is the desire for siblings to compete over the family ideal innate, or is it something weathered into them? On Bull Mountain, it can be said that both happen. This is a criminal’s paradise in, of all places, North Georgia. A place where the Burroughs men live how they want and where others live how the Burroughs men dictate. The seed of that insanity — the expectations set upon callous, hard-Southern men — is always there. It just needs sustenance and time to bloom in its own way: examples in the novel include burning a man alive and scarring a hooker for life. Sooner or later, each Burroughs man blossoms into his own walking hurricane. Reading the book, I often wondered if the mountain itself demanded this — that the sacrifice has to be more than blood, but the very souls of those who choose to own it.
The victims, there are many. The Burroughs women suffer worst of all. They sit at the periphery but are equally affected by the cycles of violence and crime. The glamour of the rebellious type draw them in only to leave them wasted, spent, and subjected to delivering the next set of overlords onto the mountain. Their reactions to this world are genuine and fascinating in contrast to the Burroughs men. With a matriarch, Annette, leaving her three boys behind in 1961, knowing they are not truly her own, and Kate, the modern day wife of Clayton, trying to pull him with her to a safer, saner place where that mountain won’t curse them anymore. Taking a chance on a man Kate knows could turn sour at any time, no matter how hard he pretends to be any different than his brothers. There’s also the scarred prostitute, Angel, an unwilling testament to the legacy of violence, driven into the darkest places, all at the whim of that tough-guy archetype.
There are a lot of questions I was left with in regard to the treatment of these women and how the cycles of physical and mental abuse against them ripple and perpetuate deeper, darker problems on Bull Mountain. While these actions are part of the stereotype that defines this sort of Southern man, there’s criticism in its portrayal. There is a problem with the tough-guy trope and its glamorization that is worth exploring even while paying tribute to the great stories that have relied on them.
Panowich may provide familiar characters rooted in trope, but he also tears apart the hardened, Southern man so popular in rural noir. Even more, he does so while maintaining that those characters have a moral, human center. That center may be rotted, but it’s there and worthy of exploring and understanding. Media so very often loves to deify the tough-guy, especially the ones who fall into regional tropes. Examining the reasons for these characters’ motivations and actions quite often turns the mirror onto the reader as well. Why do we root for these people? Why are we so fascinated by their stories? Are we also capable of being villains (arguably) at that level? Human nature dictates we make mistakes, and while there’s an opportunity to learn from missteps, there are plenty of people who continue to make mistakes and entrench themselves in the belief that they are righteous. There are more than enough real-world examples we can draw from.
While it’s not Panowich’s job to answer those questions, he did manage to elicit them from me. This makes Bull Mountain a little more than the crime epics I’m used to. Sure, these concepts have been explored, but I don’t remember a time I’ve thought about how each crime or kindness can literally ripple through generations. The characters that live on Bull Mountain live with the consequences of their father’s father’s actions. It creates tension. What hope is there for any generation of Burroughs that decides to hitch their wagon to that god-forsaken mountain? The only hope is clear, but human nature is bizarre; it forces guilt, shame, and obligation on us. Any person born into this cycle would suffer the same fate and make the same decisions.
These tough guys of the American South, these modern-day cowboys, have been worn to the marrow by history. They’ve become twitchy, incapable of bearing the weight of their sins and the dozens that were perpetrated by those that came before. A thought in respect to these modern-day Burroughs: Does the modern man — equipped to be a little more open to emotion — jibe at all with the idealized man of the days gone by? Could that be what ends up consuming the Burroughs men, or is it just another part of what leads to their troubles? I’m of the opinion that the latter is true. The bubble bursts as it gets larger, and we find ourselves watching a family that’s been steadily staring down the proverbial barrel with their fingers on the trigger finally nod off at the absolute worst time.
The changes that came to the Burroughs came to all of us. We’ve evolved with the times, some better than others, just like the Burroughs and the people working with or against them. Some have died, and some have thrived, but the change will come no matter what anyone does or no matter hard anyone fights; ultimately, another lesson Panowich brings to his characters in increasingly more difficult ways.
After reading Bull Mountain, I thought about consequences and the guilt that comes with obligation. I thought about Cain and Abel, about the blind faith that can so be so easily engrained in the minds of those looking to worship their father figures, and I thought about the weight of my actions and decisions on the people around me. Have there been things I’ve done in good faith, for what I rationalized as a good reason, which my grandchildren will karmically pay for? It’s hard to think about and accept, and easy to understand why the men on Bull Mountain would play ignorant to those thoughts. The less arduous path is to focus on either what is already yours or what you want. We’re comfortable in that mode, and Panowich has a clear understanding of that. It’s what makes it easy to believe that a place like Bull Mountain can swallow a man alive, and that should leave a lot of us just a little worried about what we make of our lives with the time we have.