The Burroughs clan rule Bull Mountain: from the 1950s when they ran moonshine across several state lines, through major marijuana growth and distribution in the 70s to cooking crystal meth today. Their cruelty and violence, passed down from one generation to the next, has kept their legend ablaze. But Federal Agent Simon Holly is determined to bring them down. Enlisting the help of the black sheep of the family, local Sheriff Clayton Burroughs, he sets them all on a path of destruction that has been decades in the making.
This story opens with such a punch to the guts that it sets the tone for the rest of the book. The tension and vicious brutality continue unabated for the next three hundred pages as we see how the cruelty of the father is so easily passed to the son. The men of Bull Mountain are despicable characters; beating their wives, bullying and murdering their employees, double-crossing their partners, even killing each other to maintain control over the empire. Ultimately this is a family story of jealousy, betrayal and revenge.
The development of the characters, most of whom are introduced to the reader as children, is delicious. We see their innocence swept away and the devastating effects of this on their later lives and relationships. Every character, and there were rather a lot, was distinct and utterly authentic. Through multiple generations of Burroughs men, I had no problem distinguishing them as the story jumped back and forth, so convincingly were they written: each had his own unique voice. The women too were incredibly strong, despite their circumstances. The entire flow of the writing was beautiful, Panowich is reminiscent of John Steinbeck in his construction of such a gritty sense of place; Bull Mountain, Georgia was a character in her own right.
None of the characters is likeable, and none escape without compromising their morals at least somewhere along the line, but I cannot compel you strongly enough to read this book. It is not just an astonishing first novel, but an astonishing novel full stop.