A Review of Mark Westmoreland’s A Mourning Song
By Wiley Reiver
Mark Westmoreland’s A Mourning Song, (Shotgun Honey, 2023) the sequel to his gritty, snarling A Violent Gospel, explores the consequences of violence and loss in a way not often found in genre fiction. To be sure, this second story about Mack and Marshall Dooley is a fast paced, viscerally written novella that’s on all fours with the conventions of grit lit. But what makes this a distinctive contribution to the form is how Westmoreland balances often black-hearted humor with carefully calibrated pathos, brutal action against searing depictions on what can happen in the aftermath to even the roughest and toughest, and tender moments of love alongside the soul-gutting that losing the beloved incurs. The result is a novella that, if you’re not careful, will both entertain and challenge or even disturb you in equal measures.
To explain why, I’ll begin by setting the stage for what happens in Mourning through a brief recap of Gospel. There we first encounter the north Georgia brothers, with their pronounced tendency to run hard and wild in pursuit of pretty much anything they want. But their impulsive avarice places them in the crosshairs of one Rev. Randy Jessup, an unholy preacher with apparently no limits to the pain and violence he’s willing to inflict.
Surviving Jessup links the brothers with crime lord Peanut Bohannon, who enlists them in his bloody efforts to maintain exclusive control of happenings in Tugalo County. By the end of the novel, the diabolical shepherd is dead, but it doesn’t feel much like a victory for the Dooleys. Marshall’s ensnared in Peanut’s criminal endeavors and estranged from his brother, while Mack’s beloved Andrea “Andy” Lewellen has been murdered, and Mack himself is sinking into alcoholic oblivion.
When Mourning opens, loss and grief have further ramified through Mack’s life. From the first scene it’s apparent we have an arguably traumatized, clinically depressed, and recklessly self-medicating protagonist on our hands. I was reminded of Larry Brown’s observation about his own writing that he loads as much trouble as possible on his characters and then watches what happens to them. And that’s pretty much what Westmoreland has done to Mack, the poor bastard.
For one thing, he’s just barely hanging on as an assistant high school football coach. There’s a certain poignancy to this subplot; I come away convinced Mack, in his daze of sorrow and booze, doesn’t recognize the possibilities for himself in holding this position, and not merely because his drinking is out of control. Moreover, and even worse, Mack’s brother remains out of touch while also trapped in an escalating war between Peanut’s forces and the Ghostface Devils, a sociopathically violent white supremacist gang. (Their specialty? Burning their victims to death in ways that hellishly prolong the agony.)
And then there are the women with whom Mack is entwined. Here we reach what to my mind are the most compelling and rich aspects of Westmoreland’s story.
He’s keeping company with one, Jessa, but it’s not clear what ties bind them to one another. Is it genuine intimacy or needful enmeshment? A grief-driven distraction on Mack’s part? A function of their neurons-obliterating hot sex? What we do know is that Mack’s rampant use of alcohol leads to denial and deception, worst of all being, of course, how Mack lies to himself. At the novella’s conclusion, Mack makes a decision that leaves me still and doubtful about their future together. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if after another six months they’ve devolved into something like the couple in the video to Bob Dylan’s “Beyond Here Lies Nothing.”
Which brings us to Andy, Mack’s deeply loved and, at Violent’s conclusion, very dead lover. But the state of things is much more murky in Mourning. She’s appearing to him in dreams, many of them collapsing into nightmares in which Randy Jessup violates her or transmogrifies her into a deadly snake. Other encounters with her, though, seem to happen when Mack’s in a waking state. Is she a revenant? A ghost? The hallucinatory product of Mack’s imagination? It’s not important how one answers these questions, because in any event Westmoreland skillfully depicts the ravagings of trauma and grief on Mack’s psyche. In so doing, he cuts against the grain of much crime or noir fiction, in which men are, or at least seem to be, unaffected by violence and death. And Mourning is all the richer for it.
As you would expect, the plot eventually turns and twists its way to a reunion between Marshall and Mack, who come together when their mother is kidnapped by the Ghostface Devils. Joining forces once again with Peanut, they try to rescue her, with sufficient violence to remind us of just how grim and bloody their world’s become. But if you’re anything like me, the expertly crafted fight scenes pale alongside the passages in which Mack struggles with love, death, and violence in human, all-too human ways.
All in all, Westmoreland has given two fine installments of the Dooley brothers’ saga. If we’re lucky, their story will go on for a long while coming.
Wiley Reiver is from the South Carolina Lowcountry but currently lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He works in university administration. He’s also been a picture framer, college English teacher, ESL instructor in Iraq, racetrack bathroom cleaner, and very bad maker of donuts. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine. His fiction and nonfiction work has appeared under other names in the New York Times, Fried Chicken and Coffee, the Civil War Monitor, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He’s at work on a New Orleans crime novel. Twitter: @SFWriter3.