A review of A Violent Gospel by Mark Westmoreland
Reviewed by Well Read Beard
“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
– Isaac Asimov
Living straight ain’t easy in the rural areas of this country. The industry and commerce have disappeared from the American small town. If you live in one of these places, decent work may be literally 30-45 minutes down the road. You need wheels to get to a job that far away. You need money to get the wheels. You get where I am going with this. In a place with about as much of a police presence as there are job opportunities, a life of petty crime starts to look pretty damn attractive. The North Georgia area that we visit in Mark Westmoreland’s A Violent Gospel is a place just like that. Now, I don’t want to take a Georgia story and put a Kentucky spin on it, but I think Darrell Scott framed it up best in his song “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” when he said “You spend your life diggin’ coal from the bottom of your grave…” From the synopsis, there are money-laundering preachers, Dixie Mafia crime bosses, and a literal nest of vipers. In a place like this full of hard people, a place where a man will shoot you if you come between him and his ability to put food on his table, you can’t trust anyone.
I am going to knock the one real negative that I have with this book out the way now. It’s not really a negative for me, but it’s one of those things I could see being a negative for other readers. The book is full of that redneck rhetoric, that hillbilly haiku (Thanks, Guy Clark), that down south simile. Look, I like that stuff. Some of them I loved: “If Harper Lewellen caught us trespassing, he’d get mad enough to shit bullet holes through us.” Some of them I laughed at: “I dropped the smile like I’d gotten hogtied and fed a gravy spoon full of mudbutt.” Note to self, I still need to google that one. Through the course of the book some of South-isms just felt a bit forced, maybe a bit over the top. That’s it. That’s my one thing.
Our main character is Mack Dooley. Mark Westmoreland and myself both share a love for Georgia Bulldog football, so the name Dooley carries extra meaning. We open on Mack and his brother Marshall trying to steal a bunch of money that unbeknownst to them belongs to the local snake-handling church’s money laundering operation. Preacher Randy doesn’t like that very much. Randy has some hard sons-a-bitches working for him as well as a fair portion of the folks in the area brainwashed to do his bidding. So, the boys start out in mess, in a hole. Climb out or dig deeper. Climb out or dig deeper. Where’s the shovel?
There is an element to the story that I want to mention. It’s not really a big enough piece, meaning I feel that by mentioning it I can convey the awesomeness of the idea without really spoiling major plot points. There is a baptismal tub full of venomous snakes. How cool is that? I mean whether you look at it as a metaphor for church in general or just a cool way to send someone to meet their maker… How cool is that? Brings a very important quote from the Bible to mind: “I have had it with these mother-fucking snakes in this mother-fucking church.” – 2 Samuel(Jackson) 3:16. Can I get an amen?
There is a torture scene in this book that I enjoyed. Oh, now come on, I didn’t mean it that way… “That feeling clawed through my body until I begged whoever was listening to die. But death lingered off in the distance and let me suffer hell.” I like that. A lot. Hell is real, but it’s right here on earth at the tail end of a string of bad luck and worse decisions. Right here.
The title. I love this title. I think I just love titles with “violence”. John Wagner’s graphic novel A History of Violence comes to mind. There is something about that word. I also read a lot of horror, and religious horror is my favorite sub-genre. So, for me, the intersection of violence and the gospel makes for an absolutely perfect title. I cannot think of another title that would make me want to read the book on title alone more than this one.
In closing, I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and let’s be honest, I met Mark through our mutual love of books quite a while before I knew he was aspiring to write one. There was a definite seasoning on this story. In no way did it read like a debut. These characters were exciting. They were funny. Underneath all that, Mack was courageous, an unlikely hero. This fictional world of crime and hard luck feels fertile for more stories. I want more. Joe Lansdale has had a lot of success with his string of Hap and Leonard books. I feel that kind of potential here. What’s Mack going to get up to next?
I don’t often reference acknowledgements in a book review, but Mark wrote a pretty damn fine acknowledgments section in the back of this book. I love how he thanked his wife Dawn for talking him out of including that one unnecessary dick joke in this book. It definitely left me holding the book at the end with a smile on my face. I don’t know Mark well, but I know him well enough to know that Dawn was right.