Revenge and love are perhaps two of the most significant (or overused) concepts employed by the bard, Shakespeare. One of pop culture’s most prominent directors, Quentin Tarrantino, uses revenge as a motivation for many of the characters he has brought to live in his films. How does an artist craft a compelling revenge tale? Why is it still popular? Arguably, the most important component to these stories is the characters; the audience has to believe that the character’s lust for vengeance is justified, and these characters still have something to lose—which is often where love of family, a friend, or a partner elicits empathy.
As a story in a thematic trilogy that revolves around vengeance, S. Craig Zahler’s A Congregation of Jackals gives us protagonists who are the targets of revenge, and is able to develop an entire mythos around characters who we want to empathize with. We are presented with a group of former outlaws who have become “good” men, although they still have specific quirks and hangups that have developed over their lifetimes because of their violent histories. Zahler drags you into a mystery; we know these former outlaws were terrible in the past, and we keep hoping that this isn’t truth. We hope that misfortune forced these characters into their outlaw careers because we want to cheer for them, and the slow reveal provides the ultra-violent backdrop for an intense story that does not revel in the violence “of the moment”; in other words, the plot itself seems to unfold at a snail’s pace, but as the past meets the present, we are presented with men who have already experienced their catharsis and are awaiting the conclusion to their story. The reader has to come to terms with the idea that we aren’t hoping these character succeed at all, but rather, that they do not ruin the lives of more innocent people, a point Zahler effectively points out several times. It is the only victory that the Tall Boxer Gang strives for.
The past-present overlap is a Greek chorus narrative device that Zahler utilizes to powerful effect; I kept telling myself I know what Zahler is doing, but I allowed myself to become sucked in. I was committed to this story and couldn’t put it down. Time slowed or didn’t exist at all when I read this novel.
Whether or not these characters discover redemption at all is an idea Zahler leaves up for grabs; we aren’t forced to accept that anyone deserves anything in this story, although the Tall Boxer Gang seems almost relieved at the prospect that all criminals eventually pay a price—another well-executed theme.
I have marveled at Zahler’s ability to make true, mature love seem both possible and realistic. The characters believe they understand their partners and love interests intimately and deeply; whether we have the chemistry between gunfighters (outlaws and lawmen), the respect and wisdom that comes from years of marriage, the burgeoning of a fresh romance, or dedication to family, Zahler’s use of dialogue makes it powerfully believable. I could easily say this about all three pieces in the Western revenge trilogy.
This book got a tear out of me. I haven’t felt this emotionally invested in a novel since I was a teenager. Even though I read this novel after Wraiths of a Broken Land (another exceptional story that I will review), I felt like this book’s treatment of classic themes made for a superior read that is destined to remain an all-time favorite of mine. I thought the style Zahler used to deliver this narrative demonstrated a stark intelligence and mastery of storytelling; as part of a thematic trilogy, it couldn’t be more different than the other pieces in its delivery (I think Bone Tomahawk is the other piece of the trilogy, though I’m not sure, and it might be closer in narrative style to that film with the slow-burn approach), which truly made it all the more provocative. This book stands tall on its own, but paired with Wraiths, I felt like I was witnessing the work of a master craftsman who gave his characters life across two beautiful novels. After reading A Congregation of Jackals, the first thing I wanted to was hunt down the author’s email address and thank him.