Gods of Howl Mountain: Raw Realism in 1950s Appalachia

I received an advance reader’s copy of Gods of Howl Mountain¬†through NetGalley. Set in the 1950s in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, the novel focuses on Granny May and her grandson Rory as they struggle to come to terms with a traumatic past that has left Rory’s mother and her daughter locked up in an insane asylum.

The opening scenes of the novel offer a view of what might seem a stereotypical mountain grandmother, rocking and smoking on the porch of her cabin. But while she does seem to be everyone’s granny, offering mountain remedies for ailments and tending to her grandson and his friend, she also wields a shotgun with ease and has her own past to contend with. Plus, she isn’t above a bit of malicious fun when it comes to those who judge her.

Rory, her grandson, home from the Korean War minus a leg, works in the moonshine trade, dodging the revenuers and locals in his big Ford. He is a somewhat reluctant participant but it is the work available to him. One night, he stumbles upon a group of frenzied Pentecostals worshipping in an old garage, speaking in tongues and handling snakes. The scenes of the church have a surreal quality as we move into the crowd with Rory, mesmerized by the chanting and dancing.

The novel itself seems to pulse with the life of the mountains and Taylor Brown uses rich prose to describe people and places. It threatens every so often to spill over into excess but Brown manages to keep control, much like his main characters controls the big Ford. His world is one of raw life: violence, sex, love, grief all rolled into complex characters.

Reading Reviews

The beginning of the semester here in the ‘burg put the brakes on my reading pace. But, now that most of the start up meetings are over and the syllabi are published, I’m back at it. It took me longer that I expected to finish two books: Girl Mary by Petru Popescu and Love Me by Garrison Keillor. Here are short reviews:

Girl Mary was the story of the young Mary, the mother of Jesus, exiled to the desert with her tribe after they offended Herod. She is portrayed as a mystic who sees angels and finds the well that sustains the tribe for three years. The author also describes her burgeoning relationship with Joseph and Pontius Pilate shows up as well, a young Roman sent to spy on all of them, who finds himself attracted to the beautiful, unusual young woman. It was a dreamy book with luscious prose that painted a portrait of clashing cultures, all concerned with the potential political impact of the appearance of a Messiah.

Love Me was a bit more challenging. I love Keillor’s wickedly funny prose but it is occasionally a mask for not much of a plot and about 3/4 of the way through I found myself tiring of the dense prose and longing for a bit more of an actual story. And then it appeared and kept me moving to what turned out to be a surprising yet lovely end. The book had lots of snarky things to say about The New Yorker and its stable of writers. I laughed aloud at many passage but here’s the funniest for now. It’s a quote from Mr. Shawn, the editor of the magazine:

I don’t want you to turn into a stylist like White and devote your life to painting Easter eggs. Him and Strunk have screwed up more writers than gin and Scotch combined. You take that Elements of Style too seriously and you’ll get so you spend three days trying to write a simple thank-you note and you’ll wind up buying a nickel-plated .38 and robbing newsboys out of sheer frustration.

There’s your chuckle for the day!