Raymond Chandler once said about writing fiction: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” In his first novel, Bull Mountain, firefighter Brian Panowich seems to have taken Chandler’s advice to heart: His characters brandish weaponry in a way that Charlton Heston might have found disconcerting. The result is a fast-paced and intricate revenge story culminating in a Shakespearean bloodbath.
The novel concerns three generations of a Georgia family, the Burroughs, living on the edge of the law. They run guns, make meth, sell moonshine and are so tough they take their aspirin dry. They drink hard, solicit prostitutes and then beat them up, but the offspring of one such encounter grows up to become a G-man bent on vengeance. The Burroughs’ hatred of the “Feds” hints that the Civil War didn’t end for them at Appomattox; they take freedom very seriously.
Like perhaps too many American male writers, Panowich writes in the shadow of Cormac McCarthy’s almost pornographically violent Blood Meridian. Panowich shows us men being burned alive, heads exploding and more, with a kind of Caligulan relish, or perhaps that of an avid gamer.
Despite Panowich’s apparent admiration for McCarthy, he does not write in McCarthy’s often ponderous style, or emphasize style over characterization and plot. Some of his characters are monstrous, but they are drawn with conviction and sympathy, and the action proceeds briskly.
By the close of this vivid and gritty journey, does the Burroughs family—as McCarthy’s precursor Faulkner might have asked—prevail, or merely endure? The answer to that comes when someone—you guessed it—pulls out a gun.