S. Craig Zahler is a novelist, filmmaker, and voracious consumer of old pulp fiction. While watching his movies Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete, his literary influences are crystal clear: Zahler is a Paperback Warrior kind of guy. As such, it’s only fitting that I divert from vintage fiction for a day to review his 2010 gritty western, A Congregation of Jackals.
The year is 1888, and Virginia brothers Oswell and Godfrey both receive telegrams inviting them to the wedding of James Lingham in Montana. The invitation causes the bothers much consternation because they haven’t heard from Lingham in decades. Moreover, the invitation ominously references that “all old acquaintances” will be there.
The author slow-deals the revelations and reasons why the invitation sparks worries in the invitees, but the gist is that they were once part of a group of outlaws years ago that included the groom. Things went nightmarishly wrong for the gang, and vengeance was sworn by a terrifying adversary. Everyone went their separate ways hoping to put their pasts behind them, and then the vexing invitation to a wedding arrives. The fear is that failing to travel to Montana for a reckoning might bring trouble to the no-shows and harm to their respective families.
One of the other invitees - also an alumnus of the long-disbanded outlaw gang - is a Manhattan playboy named Dicky. He’s smart, charming and funny - by far the most charismatic and relatable character in the paperback. Dicky joins the brothers on their journey westward via train and stagecoach to a wedding they’re all pretty certain will be a total bloodbath. Of course, the reader is counting on that being true, and the Montana scenes definitely don’t disappoint.
A Congregation of Jackals is a well-written and engaging paperback and the pages turn quickly thanks to the cinematic quality of the set-pieces the author creates. Mahler’s novel is also periodically violent and shocking with scenes of brutality rivaling the darkest moments of the Edge series by George Gilman with the sheen of a literature written with time and care. Admittedly, there’s a lot of build-up to the final confrontation, and some readers may find it slow at times. However, stick with it because the extended climax is really something special.
Nothing about this strong recommendation should come as no surprise to fans of Zahler’s films, and if you liked Bone Tomahawk - or the westerns of Quentin Tarantino - you’re going to enjoy the heck out of A Congregation of Jackals.
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