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As we rush around buying presents, we must always remember that “our presence rather than our presents” is one of the greatest gifts we can give.
– Catherine Pulsifer  
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  Volume No. 16 Issue No. 12 December 2019  

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Front Page   |   Feature Stories   |   Search This Issue   |   Log In
  “Bull Mountain”
  By Robin Widmar

   Few words in the English language carry more complexity in a single syllable. Whether extended family or blood relation, family means different things to different people. “Family” is the word that opens Brian Panowich’s debut novel, “Bull Mountain,” and how Riley Burroughs says it conjures an unmistakable aura of deep-seated conflict among blood kin in the rural mountains of northern Georgia.
   The year is 1949. The family business of running corn whiskey is drying up, and Riley doesn’t think his brother’s plans to grow marijuana is the way to go, either. “We can’t live like this forever,” he says. He has decided to sell timber rights on the family land on Bull Mountain and invest the money in legitimate businesses to secure an honest future for the next generation. His brother, Cooper, opposes such a move, fearing it will open the door for takeover by outsiders. “It’s home,” Cooper says. “Our home … . Ain’t nothing more important than that.” By the end of the first chapter, readers learn just how far the Burroughs clan will go to protect their home and their families.
   This sets the tone for the rest of the story and provides insight into why the family is still running drugs and guns in 2015. It also explains the deep rift between Cooper’s grandson, Clayton, and the rest of his kin.
   Clayton Burroughs is no saint, but he seems to be the straightest branch on the Burroughs family tree. As the sheriff of McFalls County with jurisdiction over Bull Mountain, he wants nothing more than to shut down his family’s illegal operations. It is not easy. Several federal agencies have tried and failed because none of them quite understood how things worked in rural Georgia. The last attempt to neutralize the family’s criminal enterprise resulted in the death of one of the three Burroughs brothers, leaving a still fresh wound on both sides.
   Special Agent Simon Holly with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms comes to Clayton with yet another proposal: What if there was a way to shut down the surviving brother’s operations that could benefit everyone? All Holly wants is a Florida crime boss connected to Halford Burroughs, and Halford goes free in return.
   Clayton knows it will be impossible to turn Halford against his connections. He tells Holly that Halford and his men “were born into it, and the fight comes on real hard when someone threatens to take it away.” But there’s something about Holly –- he is not like other federal agents. Clayton agrees to help, despite his own doubts about the operation’s probable success. “This could be my last chance to save him,” Clayton tells his wife, Kate, who has her own misgivings and predicts that this will not end well.
   She is right. Simon Holly has ulterior motives and unexpected ties to the Burroughs clan that are revealed over the course of the story. The end result is inevitably violent and bloody. Some prevailing issues are neatly tied up while enough loose ends dangle to entice the reader into picking up Panowich’s next book, “Like Lions.”
   “Bull Mountain” is told from multiple viewpoints across different time periods. It might sound confusing, but clear chapter headings and Panowich’s masterful storytelling make it easy to slip from one point of view to another. The multiple perspectives are valuable in understanding why the Burroughs men do what they do. As outsiders, Kate and another female character, Marion, have vastly different experiences that round out a storyline dominated by ruthless men. And then there’s Bull Mountain, a land so deftly portrayed it becomes its own mysterious character.
   Panowich writes efficiently but evocatively with tight plotting and authentic dialogue. But be forewarned: This is not a book for readers easily offended by profanity and violence, both of which occur regularly. However, they are integral to Panowich’s realistic portrayal of people and events that are not nice. Those who can tolerate the book’s rough parts will be rewarded with an engaging story that sucks readers into its dark, gritty vortex. And once you enter the world of Bull Mountain, it may be difficult to walk away.
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