Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Bull Mountain

Bull Mountain Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I love the ambition of this book: a multi-generational, multi-perspective thriller with lots of twists and turns. That said, it lives up to that promise in mostly conventional ways. The narrative is choppy; we get chapterlets that run just a few pages each, interrupting the story and giving us lots of contrived moments of suspense. The characters sound interesting, but we get to see so little of most of them that they are underdeveloped. (Even Clayton, the central protagonist is unexplored; he walks a line between upholding the law and ignoring the illegality on the mountain. Where does that line lie for him? How does he balance the major conflicts of his life? We get told some of it, but only quickly and inconsistently.)

To its credit, the novel moves briskly, getting across a substantial history efficiently and without interrupting its own movement. Even as I guessed at many of the “surprises” of the story, I never felt the impulse to put it down. It’s going somewhere, somewhere more obvious than I think the author intends, but it’s going there at a pleasant speed.

My biggest complaint with the book (outside of a low-grade sexism – woman as victims, woman as generally helpless – relieved only at the very end) isn’t really the author’s fault: it’s the publisher’s claim that this is “The Godfather meets Daniel Woodrell.” Sorry, not by a longshot. Woodrell is the real deal, a serious writer working in the hardboiled field. The Godfather, which is less strong than its movie adaptations, is still a provocative study in what it means to be an American in a time of political discontent and when your ethnicity doesn’t square with the dominant type.

This novel is none of that. At its best it’s a solid thriller, a decent example of what you can do inside the crime genre, even if you transport it from the city to the rural south. This isn’t pushing the boundaries of the genre; it’s offering us a pleasant enough escape.

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