"A Congregation of Jackals: Author’s Preferred Text " Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press
Written by S. Craig Zahler
2016, 415 pages, Fiction
Published on December 6th, 2016
Back in 2013, I read what I thought at the time was the best western in the history of westerns, S. Craig Zahler’s Wraiths of the Broken Land – you can read the first chapter of this magical revenge tale right here. Brutal and intense, the novel made my “Best of 2013”, and I truly believed that it could not be topped.
Zahler then went on to write and direct the amazing Bone Tomahawk, a film that while wasn’t quite as violent as Wraiths of the Broken Land, it still made me squirm in my seat at parts. While I was already quite impressed with Zahler’s work before I watched Bone Tomahawk, the movie solidified my belief that this cat was the real deal. Naturally, when the opportunity arose to review Zahler’s latest, A Congregation of Jackals: Author’s Preferred Text, I almost hurt myself jumping at it. If Zahler already delivered a left with Wraiths and a right with Bone, then I can quite confidently say that A Congregation of Jackals is the knockout uppercut. To say the book is brutal is criminally understating the violence that permeates throughout its pages.
Like Wraiths, Congregation cold opens to give you a tiny taste of what you are in for. The first chapter quickly introduces the antagonists and briefly touches on the pain they are both capable of and willing to inflict on virtually anyone. Once you are effectively shocked at the violence unfolding, it’s over and the next chapter, and Congregation’s story, begins.
See, back in the day, Oswell ran with a bank robbing gang that consisted of his brother, Godfrey; a giant of a man, Jim; and a ladies’ man, Dickey. The gang did alright, making money here and there, until they ran into Quinlan, an evil sonovabitch who made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. While they made a lot of money running with Quinlan, something very, very bad went down and they all went their separate ways. Flash forward to the present, where out of the blue, Oswell gets a wedding invitation from his old pal Jim. This is a little weird, as he hasn’t spoken to him since that unspeakable act happened many years prior. As he reads through the letter, however, it turns out it’s not an invitation at all, but rather a “you better get your ass out here with the rest of the gang, or there’ll be hell to pay.” So Oswell gathers his brother and the weapons of their past, and arranges to meet Dickey near the town where Jim is to be wed, and soon after the festivities start. If I thought weddings were bad enough as it is, after reading this, I never want to go to another again. Not even my own.
Naturally, the story is far more developed than that weak synopsis, but – and I know this is very clichéd – the less you know about this book going in, the better. Let the story unfold naturally because Zahler can spin one helluva yarn. Granted, he has a tendency to wrap that yarn around your neck and damn near choke you out with it, but it’s well worth the mental beat down reading this book gives you.
I cannot understate how merciless A Congregation of Jackals is. There is a point in the book, where after describing what a particular tribe of Native Americans does to their captives, the characters meet up with chief of said tribe. It’s so full of tension, I literally felt an anxiety attack coming on and I had to briefly put down the book and use the techniques I’m familiar with to reel it in (and by literally, I mean it in the true definition of the word, not the figuratively that’s now in the dictionary to appease ignorant people). While that was the only time such an attack was brought on, there were countless times where I audibly gasped at what I was reading, many times drawing looks from fellow riders on the Metro.
I want to recommend this book to every single reader, but it’s hard because I know many people can’t handle the savagery within its pages. And know this: this isn’t violence for violence’s sake. If it were, I would call it out on it because I’m not a fan of, “Look how awful I can be!” This is a story of revenge with repercussions.
Plus, as a big fan of revenge (in both films, books, and real life), Zahler shows just how truly damning it can be for all involved. Like the brilliant Korean revenge film I Saw the Devil or Park Chan-wook’s superb Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, OldBoy, Lady Vengeance), there are no winners in A Congregation of Jackals. Every character pays a price, be it large or small, and by the end of the book, you’re numb and exhausted and emotionally drained from the abuse Zahler puts you through.
I can’t speak highly enough of this book. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’m mad at my dumb brain because I can’t extrapolate the words to convince you that even though A Congregation of Jackals is going to kick your ass from one side of the street to another, you still need to read it because it’s more than a simple book, it’s art in the written form. Not only is going to be my favorite novel of the year – I simply don’t see anything beating it at this point – this is one of the best books I’ve read in a decade, and I’ve read more than my share in that time. You need to read this at first opportunity.