Like Lions by Brian Panowich

McFalls County sheriff Clayton Burroughs is a broken man in many ways.  He wrestlesLike Lions with the aches of past injuries, drinks his way through a failing marriage and fatherhood to an infant son, and struggles to keep his distance from his family’s legacy as the county’s drug kingpins.

Although his father died years ago and his brother Halford was a recent casualty (by Clayton’s hand), the Burroughs organization is still vital, but crumbling without direction.  There are family associates that recognize Clayton’s hardheaded talents and want him back in the fold.

Clayton is a hard sell, until a shoot up in a local bar stirs up a bigger nest of trouble, as forces from outside the county, in the form of the volatile Viner family, want in on the sway the Burroughs family once had, and they don’t play easy.

After some rough justice that goes too far, Clayton and his family are now in danger, and he doubts what integrity he has left.  And his marriage with Kate, damaged as it is, may be his last strength.

This book is the sequel to Bull Mountain, one of the hardest hitting debuts of rural noir I have read.  Like its predecessor, Like Lions starts hard and finishes harder, a potboiler that begs for continual page turning.  There’s some serious violence, and an incident in one chapter that I had to reread several times to have it sink in.  By the end, it’s understood that nobody’s hands come clean.

I started Like Lions with high hopes, and while it didn’t impress me as much as the first book (do sophomore efforts ever?), the book caught on quickly enough.  I burned through it in a few days, and the first and last chapters, both prequel to the rest of the book, worked nicely together into a surprise ending.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Name of the Nearest River : Stories by Alex Taylor

Reading rural noir books is a guilty pleasure.  I finish one, swear that I will never readname of the nearest river any more in this genre, and then there’s another author in the woodwork that grabs my attention.  Such is the case for Kentucky writer Alex Taylor and this collection of short stories.

Taylor’s literary world is a grim one, made up of hard weather and harder living.  His characters run the gamut from sinister to comic.  Most of these stories take place in an undetermined time, although one (“A Courier Among Green Trees”) is obviously historical.

In the title story, two friends look for the drowned body of a disliked man so they can heap more abuse on it.  In “Things Both Right and Needed”, a young man ponders revenge while in a field looking for coyotes to kill.  The daughter and father in “Winter in the Blood” are destined a bigger misfortune after discovering three of their cows shot dead.  And in “Equator Joe’s Famous Nuclear Meltdown Chili”, a ragtag family drives a drive in theater owner to distraction when their chili concoction wins over the attendees of his business.

These are just a few of the bunch, and they’re all worth reading.  Taylor writes a highly descriptive prose style so it’s easy to imagine the temperature extremes, the hilly terrain, the hardscrabble folk who people his stories.  Some passages are worth slowing down when reading because the writing is that good.

I haven’t read the author’s most recent novel The Marble Orchard, but I think this collection has sold me on it.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Weight of This World by David Joy

Aiden McCall, orphaned at age twelve, is soon taken in by his buddy Thad Broom, andweight the two grow up inseparable, albeit in an unusual circumstance.  They live in a trailer down the hill from Thad’s mother’s house.  Thad basically got kicked out by his stepfather, and he fends for himself.  His mother is distant to him.

Flash forward to when the two are twenty-four.  Thad has finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan; he’s a damaged soul with a messed up back and too many memories of the front.  Aiden has spent most of his young adulthood committing petty crimes and riding the pre-recession building boom in their corner of western North Carolina.  Of course, the jobs are largely gone, and Aiden and Thad eke it out filching copper from the shells of unfinished houses and doing an occasional drug deal.

A chance visit with their local meth dealer finds our two friends witnessing a horrible accident that leaves them with a serious stash and more money than either have seen in years.

For Aiden, this windfall, ill-fortuned as it is for some, is the ticket out of their dead-end town.  If only it were this easy.  As it is, Thad has the gift of gab when he’s on a meth bender, so too many other people become interested in what the two have.

Interwoven with Aiden and Thad’s stories is that of April, Thad’s mother, who still has the house up the hill and has her own dreams of leaving.  She has always carried an internal burden that has kept her cold to her son.  It’s ironic that she and Aiden have been intimate since before Thad got back from the army.  The two men are still the best of friends, but this affair is certainly a friction point.

The Weight of This World is hardcore grit lit, a tale of woe in which nothing is a clear-cut choice.  Our heroes, as they were, are beat-up and doomed people who wish for better things than fate is willing to give them.  I found the book a sad but well-written read.

This is the second novel by David Joy; read his first (Where All Light Tends to Go).  It’s perhaps even grittier than this one.

Fans of Daniel Woodrell and Ron Rash – take note.

(William Hicks, Information Services)