Book Review: A Mourning Song by Mark Westmoreland
Mark Westmoreland’s debut novella, A Violent Gospel, introduced readers to Mack and Marshall Dooley, two roustabout brothers in the north Georgia mountains whose penchant for trouble leads them into a deadly showdown with a psychotic preacher, Randy Jessup, and his criminal flock. Along the way, Mack (from whose point of view the novel is told) reconnects with Andy, his grade-school flame, and the brothers team up with crime boss Peanut Bohannon, who leaves no room for other criminal enterprise within his Tugalo County empire. By the end of Gospel, the unholy man is dead, but this triumph is shadowed by loss and uncertainty. Andy, too, is dead. Marshall has been lured into Peanut’s permanent employ—a decision which strains his relationship with his brother. And Mack seeks refuge from his grief in bottle after bottle.
It’s unclear how much time has elapsed when A Mourning Song opens, but it’s clear things have gotten worse. Mack is haunted, quite literally, by loss. Andy and Jessup populate his nightmares. In imagery reminiscent of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Andy also appears to Mack in his waking hours at unexpected moments—seated in the truck or on a porch, waiting in his trailer—always seemingly with a message she cannot manage to deliver. Mack’s got a good job as an assistant high school football coach and the love (or, at least, amiable companionship) of a new woman, Jessa. Still, the unaddressed trauma and grief has him on a path to drinking himself to death.
To make matters worse, Marshall has gone M.I.A., and a violent white supremacist gang known as the Ghostface Devils is looking for him. Turns out, Marshall and Peanut’s sergeant-at-arms, Caudell, may have traded an eye for an eye with the Ghostface Devils one time too many following a gruesome turf battle. But when the brothers’ Mama is kidnapped by the upstart gang, it’s time at last for a brotherly reunion. With the assistance of Peanut and his soldiers, Mack and Marshall seek to recover their mother alive and to lay down a heaping helping of north Geogia whoopass.
A Violent Gospel showcased Westmoreland’s facility with humorous dialogue and swift, brutal action. Those attributes carry forward into A Mourning Song, but they’re blended in this new novel with a melancholic sense of grief—a recognition that the lives the Dooley boys have chosen can’t simply amount to good ol’ boy swagger and moments of righteous vengeance. There’s a cost, both human and spiritual, to it all. Whereas so much commercial crime and thriller fiction glosses over such cost, content simply to send their heroes steadfastly on to the next adventure with iron will and granite jaw intact, Song tackles these complexities with skill and empathy.
Song is filled with propulsive action and laugh-out-loud moments, to be sure. But it’s a novel of surprising emotional depth, with a coda that will gut even the most hardened of noir and “grit lit” readers. It’s unclear whether there will follow any more chapters in the Dooley Brothers saga. But if this is to be it, it’s a damn fine conclusion.