Gritty, hot-blooded characters dominate this story and the North Carolina mountains on which they live. It is a tale to quicken your pulse and have you hoping that a little backwoods justice will be dealt to the deserving.
Rory Docherty has returned from the Korean War with a wooden leg and a desire to know who attacked his mother and killed her young lover all those years ago, leaving her unable to speak and in an institution. Rory runs whiskey in his 1940 Ford, Maybelline, powered by an ambulance engine. Granny May, a former prostitute, is the local folk healer, a wood witch trying to raise her grandson, Rory, and ensure he doesn't succumb to the darkness he saw during the war which still gives him nightmares.
The book is well-written; the prose is vivid and leaves intense impressions. Occasionally, you'll bump into a sentence that tries too hard, that may have one too many descriptors or use a word in a way that is just a little too clever, but everyone who has tried to write descriptively has done the same.
My one word of caution: if the opening chapter is off-putting, ignore the feeling and keep reading. This chapter isn't indicative of the rest of the narrative; the chapter feels overworked, and the insistent references to Rory's car as "the machine" serves as an example of a section which tries to be too clever and becomes annoying.
The rest of the book displays Taylor Brown's skill in exposition. There are many examples of how he uses language to really paint a picture and bring the story to life; one which stands out describes the butchering of a pig. Brown handles the scene deftly, using just the right language to make something somewhat gruesome verge on, if not quite beautiful, the poetic:
...They dragged the fatted animal across the yard, each holding a leg. They spread the hind-legs and pierced the ankle tendons on the outer hooks of a singletree, then threw a rope over a low-hanging branch and hauled the animal off the ground like they would an engine.
Granny stepped forward with her razor and sliced the big vein in the neck, just back of the jawbone. She set out a stone jug to catch the streak of blood, life-bright in the gray dawn. She used it for making blood sausage. Once it was bled, they lowered the animal into the near-boiling water of the pot, going to work on the bristles as they heaved it streaming from the water. They dunked it again and again this way, scraping down the hide.
...The sun found the bare skin glistening over the wash pot, pink-scalded and ready for the knife. Granny made the cut, a long red vent from nethers to chin, careful not to puncture the organs. She cut the entrails out, letting them fall glistening and ropy in the tub at her feet...They salted the meat white, their red-stained hands leaving little prints on the icelike shapes and hunks...They talked little as they worked, and Granny didn't know if it was the nature of the work or something else.
This is a book twisting with tension. The action scenes could easily be taken right off the big screen, and will likely be there someday soon (I'd be surprised if this wasn't made into a move; I just hope they get the nuances right). Something about Rory brings to mind Cool Hand Luke, and the vengeance that burns inside him seems to hint at old-school Charles Bronson violence.
Gods of Howl Mountain is Taylor Brown's third novel, but the first book of his I have read. Now, I'll need to find his first two books.