Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and/or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Gods of Howl Mountain
St. Martin’s Press
First edition, March 2018
There are books I am curious about, almost always: those in process with which I await with baited breath and others I have catalogued as “coming.” Some are part of a series. Some are just new releases from an author whose work I love. Armistead Maupin’s final “Tales of the City” was one I awaited with excitement—but then put off reading because I didn’t want it to end. I look forward to each new missive from Sharyn McCrumb because she still continues to surprise me: I think I know what to expect from her books, but then she turns up with a new way of flexing her skills and leaves me in awe.
Taylor Brown’s “The Gods of Howl Mountain” has piqued my curiosity. Brown secured a three-book contract with St. Martin’s Press with his debut novel, “Fallen Land. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, it was a fast-paced trip through war, love in many forms and coming-of-age in extreme circumstances. His second book, “The River of Kings,” paralleled stories in present day with early exploration of America and startled at every turn. They were very different books (though they both involved journeys and the ravages of war and stories left untold and unresolved).
So what did Brown have in store for the third book?
“The Gods of Howl Mountain” follows the struggles of a small community in the Western North Carolina mountains in the 1950s. Running moonshine is the way to put bread on the table, and the cars that can haul it by the gallon and outrun the law are in the demand. Local racetracks are where scores can be settled once and for all, and the skills that get one past the law can also earn him enough money in one night to get ahead in life—if it’s not blown on drink.
For Korean War veteran Rory Docherty, working for Eustace, the local crime boss running the liquor business on his mountain is the only option. He’s missing a leg from war and doesn’t have much in the way of marketable skills otherwise. He and his Granny, “Granny May” as everyone calls her, live and work under Eustace’s protection. It is just as real and intense as anything described by Mario Puzo. For all of Eustace’s presence felt in their daily lives, Granny May and Rory are preoccupied with the mystery surrounding Rory’s birth. His mother is now institutionalized in Dorthea Dix hospital. She has not spoken a word since the night she and Rory’s father were attacked. Her lover did not survive, but she managed to scoop out the eye of one of the attackers.
Brown’s exposition blends the gentle beauty of a child’s love for a mother with horror deftly:
“Her eyes shone so bright, seeing him, they ran holes in his heart. She said nothing. Never did. She was always a quiet girl, said Granny, living in a world of her own. Touched said some. Special. Then came the night of the Gaston Killing, and she never spoke again. Rory had never heard her voice. He knew her smell, like coming rain, and the long V-shaped chords that made her neck. He knew the creases at the corners of her eyes, the size of hummingbird’s feet. He knew the feel of her hands, so light and cool. Hands that scooped out a man’s eye with a cat’s paw, then hidden the detached orb in the pocket of her dress.”
A quarter of a century later Rory and Granny are still haunted by the events of that night and have a thirst for justice. What they discover is far more than either of them bargained for, in a world where lines of loyalty aren’t drawn in the sand but chiseled into mountain rock.
The first time I read this book, I closed the back cover and turned the book over to start reading it again. Then I sat with it for weeks, thinking, savoring and deciding to read it a third time; I was convinced I missed details. Really, I wanted to visit with the characters some more.
“The River of Kings” is a pretty guy-heavy book, but Granny May’s character directs and filters a tremendous amount of the action in “The Gods of Howl Mountain.” It is very difficult to write convincing characters of the opposite gender; I genuinely and truly mean it as a compliment to Brown I could not find one flaw in Granny May’s motivations, actions, reasoning or dialogue. She might be the most perfect character Brown has written, and he has created some pretty memorable characters across the three books.
“The Gods of Howl Mountain” is the culmination of the last two books. If you enjoyed them, pick this up because all the Brown learned writing those two he has refined and distilled into a manuscript that is haunting. I, personally, want desperately to follow Granny and Rory into the next chapter of their lives. Because Brown is writing it, the story will move with force and ring with a truth that storytellers strive for to find in the human heart.