Colorful pair goes on the lam in gritty ‘Nothing But the Bones’

Brian Panowich’s new hard-boiled thriller a dizzying ride from Appalachia to Jacksonville.
Brian Panowich is the author of "Nothing But the Bones."
Courtesy of Minotaur Books / Ivy Paige Panowich

Credit: Minotaur Books / Ivy Paige Panowich

Credit: Minotaur Books / Ivy Paige Panowich

Brian Panowich is the author of "Nothing But the Bones." Courtesy of Minotaur Books / Ivy Paige Panowich

Brian Panowich establishes certain party-hearty yahoo bona fides early on in his new novel, “Nothing But the Bones.”

The media calls the druggy scourge “meth,” but old-school, roadhouse wastrels snort “crank” or “yellow crud.” And between brawls, they dry-swallow Lortabs to palliate life’s many bruises, internal and external.

It takes a certain familiarity with the rusticated demimonde to get such seamy details right, and this award-winning, Georgia-based author, who sports a rakish cowboy hat in his book jacket photo, clearly knows his scabby terrain, dedicating his fourth novel to “the misfits. There are more of us than them.”

Odds are, judging from his scene-setting, Panowich did not grow up on a cul-de-sac in Connecticut. His fictitious setting of choice is McFalls County in north Georgia — somewhere in the recognizable vicinity of “Deliverance” country.

The “misfits” of “Nothing But the Bones” take us for a dizzying ride through the bramble in this rural noir, starting in the mountains and through some hairpin turns to the sun-struck scuzziness of Jacksonville, Florida, and back again, with stops in between for trouble-making. Everyone, it seems, is some species of stone cold badass, prone to hair-trigger violence. Fans of David Joy and Randy Wayne White, take note. This is good, trashy fun — the novel as blunt-force trauma.

The toughest yet gentlest of them all is Nelson “Nails” McKenna, a grudging enforcer for crime boss Gareth Burroughs, who runs the mountain with reptilian ruthlessness. The descriptions of Nails are intriguingly oblique, asking the reader to fill in the blanks. The author lets us get to know our protagonist by the way others react to him, so we can deduce that he is large, bald and a little “tetched” with a deformed hand.

Nails is a scary hulk who really just wants to be left alone to read comic books in peace, but people keep messing with him. He talks to himself a good bit, accidentally giving away his moves, and is uncompromisingly gallant, always coming to the rescue of beleaguered women — every antihero’s downfall.

So it happens that one night at a dive bar in Appalachia, where Nails chastely sips apple juice, he drops a body while defending a bouncy blonde named Dallas — the femme fatale of this gritty tale. The crime goes down in front of a barroom full of witnesses, so Nails lams it to Florida, with Dallas tagging along, chattering in his ear and generally trailing mayhem in her trifling, perfumey wake.

Dallas is guileless and coquettish, addressing every man, even Nails, as “Handsome.” She is a flighty pretty-young-thing with all the entitlement beauty brings, a characterization that seems paper-thin at first, but is she all that she seems? Of course not. Dallas’ efflorescent developments eventually prove just as compelling, and oddly affecting, as those of Nails. Both characters, flawed and intense, grow in the course of the narrative in ways both subtle and dramatic, but always unexpected.

Panowich has assembled some stock characters in a time-tested procedural formula, but he ultimately lands every haymaker punch. The main plot is the picaresque road trip of Nails and Dallas and the chemistry that slow-boils between them. But they are trailed by Clayton Burroughs, the decent, uncomplicated, well-meaning guy in all this squalor.

Hard-boiled lines are tossed off left and right. “Clayton was only 400 miles from home but he felt like he was in another country — a country made of neon lights, concrete and bad decisions.” So many bad decisions. Another place is described as “a little upscale for his taste. Both the beer and the women were small-batch and exclusive — much too expensive for him.”

Easy to root for, Clayton is the “good son” of the crime boss, whom he calls “Deddy,” so the backstory is animated by a filial tug-of-war for Nails’ soul. Will the big galoot do the right thing and face justice? Will his many underworld antagonists let him? Does he get the girl? Pop another Lortab and find out.

Other characters in cameo roles are just as indelible and unpredictable, demonstrating that there is more fringey diversity in Appalachian nightlife than meets the eye. For instance, there is gender-bending Freddy, who runs the ground-zero honky-tonk. “Freddy, dressed in a pink bathrobe, wearing the brightest blue eyeshadow money could buy, was behind the bar. The Chute’s proprietor had aged and gotten fragile, but not fragile like fine China. He looked more like a glacier that was steadily losing huge chunks of ice into the sea.” More Freddy, please.

And one hopes that the next installment will grant a larger role to Gareth Burroughs, the mean, philosophical sumbitch who gives the book its title: “These mountains? This land? It’s not just rock and dirt. It’s a living breathing thing. And when it gets hungry? It eats the soft meat and leaves nothing but the bones. … Some folks, they take this place for granted. They just end up over their heads. And then some folks, well, they just have accidents.”

Nails is clearly in over his head, and he has had his share of accidents. Everyone knows, though, that femurs and tibias given time to heal are stronger in the broken places. “Nothing But the Bones” does not exactly have a pat Hollywood ending, but the final punch hits just right for catharsis. Give this novel to the muscle-bound bouncer in your life after you read it.


“Nothing But the Bones”

by Brian Panowich

Minotaur Books, 336 pages, $28


Brian Panowich. 7 p.m. April 17 at Georgia Center for the Book, Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. Free, but reservations required. Also 7 p.m. April 30, Eagle Eye Book Store. $5 admission goes toward book purchase. 2076 N. Decatur, Decatur.