This series alternates between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen songs that perfectly complement a good bourbon and a quality book. You can make your own suggestions and recommendations in the comments section or by tweeting @WritersBone.
By Daniel Ford
Since author Brian Panowich has become a mentor/Twitter friend, I let him choose the Springsteen song that would accompany my review of his debut novel Bull Mountain (which is available starting July 7). Much to my chagrin, his first choice was “Adam Raised A Cain,” a song I once described in this column as “redundant and uninspired.” I sent him back to the drawing board and he came back with the splendidly depressing “Wreck on the Highway.” Better yet, Panowich gave us permission to re-publish the following short story, which is included in Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Based on the Songs of Bruce Springsteen. The story features a loose end from Bull Mountain, but he assured me it doesn’t contain any spoilers.
Wreck on the Highway By Brian Panowich
I shuffle a crooked cigarette out of the pack and carefully drop it into my mouth. Of the three left in the box, it was the only one left that wasn’t broken. I was favored by the gods.
No light. Shit.
I should have known better. I just let the damn thing hang there, and stare out the window. The sun is coming up, although from this angle it looks like it’s coming down. I have a perfect view, as if the skyline adjusted itself just for me. I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about a sunrise right now if I didn’t have this sudden forced moment of peace. I think about how many times people wake up to that big ball of fire smiling at them, and nobody gives a good goddamn? They just keep running in the same circles, making the same mistakes, competing for the same nickel.
I look at Frankie hanging next to me. He’s sleeping through the moment. I let him. He wouldn’t give a shit anyway. I try to remember the last time I watched a sunrise, but it’s hard to think. My head is still foggy. I’m pretty sure, the last time was from the hood of Scabby Mike’s Model T just south of Bull Mountain with…
Aw, Hill baby, I’m sorry. I fucked everything up again. But you knew I would, didn’t you? You knew there was no such thing as one last time. That’s why you said goodbye when you left. You never used to say goodbye. I should be sitting in your kitchen right now, drinking your coffee, watching the sun come up with you. Not with Frankie. Not like this.
There’s a scarecrow just past the edge of the cornfield to my right. He must have been on his coffee break a few minutes ago. Way to go, asshole. Nobody takes pride in their jobs these days. Nobody cares. Well, you don’t have to worry about it now, buddy. That’s a little over seventy-five grand blowing all over your hometown, so maybe now you can climb your lazy ass down off that post and retire. Go tell Mrs. Scarecrow you hit the jackpot off of some poor bastard’s bad luck.
Speaking of poor bastards, Frankie’s head is starting to look like an eggplant. I pull my knife from my jacket pocket, and cut his seat belt. He falls straight down with a hard thud. That woke him up.
“Gimmie a light.”
He doesn’t even hesitant to try get his bearings first. He digs his Zippo out of his pocket with his good hand and tosses it over. I light up and the rush of smoke is a stream of battery acid down my throat.
“The fuck happened?” Frankie says.
“A bird, I think.”
“A bird?” He tries to right himself by grabbing at the back seat above him, but can’t.
He’s busted up pretty good.
“Yeah, a big one.”
He tries to laugh, but it comes out as a thick, wet cough that sprays blood all over the roof below us. He ain’t got long. I put my cigarette to his lips and he takes a grateful drag.
“Where’s the money?” he says. Now it’s my turn to laugh, as I look out the window and see the bills scattered like confetti all over the two-lane road.
“Frankie, my friend, I think we went through a lot of trouble just to end up paying off some farmer’s bank loan.”
More laughing. More coughing. More blood.
I ask him if he can see the sunrise. He doesn’t bother to answer. I knew he wouldn’t care. Hillary would. That’s all that would matter to her right now. She’d hold my hand right up to the end, which is pretty close now, because I’m beginning to hear the sirens.
I keep my gun in my boot, but I can’t reach it. My legs are so twisted up; I don’t even think they can qualify as legs any more. I’d be screaming hysterical in pain right now if it wasn’t for all the Oxy pumping through me. Thank God for the miracle of prescription medication.
“Can you reach your gun?” I ask, “Mine’s stuck.”
No answer. He’s gone. Shit. Sorry buddy.
I take one last drag and tamp out the bloody butt on the asphalt. Then I reach over and pull my dead friend a little closer until the .38 in his armpit shows itself.
The sun is high above me now. It’s a new day. The sirens are all over the place. I tell Hillary I’m sorry one more time and put the snub-nose to my head.
I’m never going back.
No bullets. Shit.
Fun fact: Fiction editor Dave Pezza and I shared an office at our day job for so long that we would be considered common-law married in some states. Our professional lives deviated a couple of weeks ago (excluding Writer’s Bone, of course), but we sent each other off the only way we knew how: with a bottle of brown alcohol. Dave gifted me Maker’s Mark 46, which I’m currently imbibing while refreshing my email waiting for a literary agent to be wowed by my query letter (or the sack of money I sent). For those of you who have gotten their hands on an advanced reader copy of Bull Mountain may question this pairing, preferring perhaps that I chose a less sophisticated bourbon given the book's setting. However, from now on, this bottle will signify to me an end and a beginning: the end of being in close proximity to one of my closest friends, and the beginning of an exciting time where both of us get to shine editorially during our waking hours. To me, Maker’s Mark 46 tastes like brotherhood, something the main characters in Bull Mountain know a thing or two about.
Inspired by The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” Brian Panowich’s debut novel Bull Mountain is a welcome addition to the quality Southern noir we’ve reviewed during the past year. The novel, which Apple and Amazon just named one of their top picks for July, follows the Burroughs clan throughout several decades in the North Georgia Mountains. At the center of the story stands Clayton Burroughs, the sheriff of Waymore Valley, an honest man standing at the foot of a corrupt mountain. A shadowy Federal agent gives him an opportunity by to finally extricate his family name from drug running and death, however, his hillbilly crime lord brother wants no part of any such redemption.
The narrative spans several generations of Burroughs men, always at odds with themselves, their kin, and the innocent bystanders in their wake. As with many of the other crime novels we’ve featured recently, this one shines because of its literary dedication to its main characters. They feel as old and familiar as the book’s mountain setting and are hardwired into the plot in a dramatically complex way. I’ll also echo author Steph Post’s thoughts in a recent podcast interview (which goes live on Monday), and say that Panowich’s lead chapter is a master class in how to start a novel. It feels as if the story was hatched on a foggy mountain outcrop and shot onto the page by a hunting rifle.
Fathers and brothers may be the bedrock of Bull Mountain, but the female characters are the soil that allows it to grow wildly. If you’re not in love with Clayton’s wife Kate by the end of the tale, then you are someone I never want to share brown liquor with. She’s more than just a Southern bell standing behind her lawman; she’s as conflicted as her male counterparts, tough as mountain stone, and has the force of a supernova when the blood starts rolling down toward the valley.
Be warned, there’s a good chance this book is going to light your house on fire, but don’t worry, Panowich is a firefighter. I’m sure he’ll squelch the flames as long as you share your bourbon.
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