“I slept with a loaded pistol & some poison last night but did not die,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley to a friend in 1811. That just about sums up Sheriff Clayton Burroughs’ predicament at the outset of Brian Panowich’s rowdy “Like Lions,” the follow-up to his well-received rural procedural, “Bull Mountain” (2015).
With red hair and a “calico beard,” Clayton, as a lawman, is a tarnished knight. Of course, his marriage is in trouble — when are they not — but to his loyal, exasperated wife, Kate, Clayton is “the only good son born of a crooked tree.”
True, he’s been dining out with his pal, Evan Williams, and country cousin, Oxycontin: anything to dull the pain from the “two high-powered rifle hits” he took from a rogue ATF agent in book one of this Southern mafia-style saga, in which fratricide has become a family tradition. Consequently, for most of “Like Lions,” Clayton is a step behind, until he’s a step ahead, which is really all that matters in the end.
Heaped high, Bull Mountain is “the epicenter of criminal activity in North Georgia.” It’s a shaggy and lawless elevation infested with amphetamine cook shacks and “hunting cabins.” Down off-the-grid byways are countless hidden six-foot drops, man-made to accommodate foolish interlopers, ratty turncoats and generations of innocent and guilty alike.
To Kate, the mountain is a “wheel of tragedy that never stopped rolling and it held no bias against who it ran over — not even children.” Yet, the Burroughs clan has been well loved, if feared, by the local population. Clayton tries to explain what’s behind their attachment to blood and soil: “The money absolutely does not matter … No one gets to tell them what they can or cannot do on their own land.”
For over a hundred years, the place has been ruled by this enterprising patriarchy specializing in felonious modes of production associated with the enduring appeal of intoxication. In the early 20th century, they established a lucrative moonshine fief before moving into marijuana “cropping” by 1950. Forming an alliance with a Florida bike gang, the Jacksonville Jackals, they transitioned to a meth-and-gun running operation in the ’70s.
In “Bull Mountain,” the metamorphosis to “High Tech Redneck” is complete, but the Burroughs are a shambles, their power diminished by “federal raids” and “Scarface” hubris. With the line now at an end, “Like Lions” is set to take things to the next stage.
Trying to break away from his family’s perpetual cycle of violence, Clayton eschews the Burroughs’ brute mountain code, embracing a career in law enforcement. Tragically, he’s compelled to kill his brother, Halford, who threatened a Sheriff’s Department dispatcher with a firearm. It’s justifiable homicide, of course, but Clayton is consumed with guilt: “He barely saw his brothers while they were alive but now that they were dead, he missed them every day.”
Brian Panowich, a Georgia writer and fireman, keeps the pot boiling, spicing the Burroughs’ genealogy with zesty, kicked-up mustard, making it pipe double hot. His strength lies in sideways schemes and unexpected turnings, with double- and triple-games always in play. At once, “Like Lions” runs three plot lines that fall together beautifully, including an ongoing treasure hunt with all parties trying to locate Halford’s ill-gotten gains buried someplace on the mountain.
Among the key dramatis personae is Bracken Leek, the Jackals’ fledgling honcho. He wants to make the partnership with the Burroughs “legitimate” by running “legal” pills through the South’s “medical clinics” with Bull Mountain an indispensable node within the “vast blind spot stretching from Valdosta to Gatlinburg.”
The new leaders of the Burroughs’ drug business keep trying to drag Clayton in, but, while he wants nothing to do with the venture, it offers the promise of order; the alternative may be the destruction of his McFalls County community, and the vultures are circling.
Enter the Viner family from Boneville in “East Georgia.” While Twyla Viner, their aging matriarch, warns her children to stay away from this part of the state, her son, the maniacal speed freak, Coot, launches a Kurosawa-style attack on Bull Mountain’s summit “compound” to avenge the death of his son, whom Clayton accidentally killed during an interrogation. (Ironically, the two dynasties are entangled in a fashion that neither — save Twyla — understands; neither will the reader until “Like Lions’” head-spinning denouement.)
Events move too quickly in “Like Lions” for genuine suspense, but that’s OK. Sudden violence is plentiful, often ridiculous. On separate occasions, folks are shot-in-half, blown-in-half, dragged on a rope behind a Geo Tracker and torn-in-half.
In the universe of “Like Lions,” the pastoral southern fantasy of yore is utterly defiled. The best that Sheriff Clayton Burroughs can hope for is a grudging compromise with his old cronies’ endless iniquity. Neither is there solace in religion, or the spirit world. “Dead is dead,” observes one character. Shelley aside, few descriptions of scenic romantic grandeur exist, though when Panowich does them, they are good, as in this fine reverie on the Blue Ridge Mountains: “The orange burn of the evening was slowly lulling the giants to sleep, stealing their details.”
Upon completion, “Like Lions” and its predecessor have a cumulative appeal. Optimism bubbles to the surface when Clayton accepts an offer to join the GBI in the “Big City,” which is geographically nearby, though psychologically remote. Nevermind Atlanta’s seedy underbelly of Sunbelt oligarchy or the shiftiness of interchangeable municipalities along its northern rim. Better Atlanta’s urban chaos and social diversity to the “crooked tree” sprung from warped stock. It will be a fresh start for Clayton, Kate and their son. They’ll escape a legacy of ferocity and pummel, and, for the moment, leave behind Bull Mountain to a swarm of gnawing rodentia.
by Brain Panowich
St. Martins Press/Minotaur Books
320 pages, $26.99
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