Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick de Witt
Published 2011

From the opening chapter, this story of two hired guns on a road trip to California smells slightly funky. You can tell right away this isn't a Zane Gray western or another version of The Horse Whisperer. The characters they meet are all a little odd, or even completely bonkers – the leery old voodoo woman, a weeping man, the prospector who drinks mud, a small boy who is abused and then abandoned by his family and a mysterious clairvoyant girl who poisons dogs. De Witt throws in these seeds of the bizarre into the gritty dirt and mud of the old frontier.
The plot is a classic road trip set-up and for most of the novel the two brothers, Eli and Charlie, spend their time getting themselves into, and narrowly escaping from, various kinds of trouble. Quick to pull their guns, they kill almost without thinking and the action is brutal and vivid, although always filtered through a lens of stylised prose and comedy. Like, after callously leaving a wet, naked boy and his demented horse to their doom, Eli thinks to himself, 'Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.'
The writing here is beautiful and always slightly off-kilter. The characters use educated language, no 'dang it', or 'get my gun Pa' type stuff here. Charlie calls over to Eli at one point, 'there is something in the air, a fortuitous energy'. It reminded me of a good Coen brother's film, the hilarious dialogue, stylised violence and pilfering of historical elements.
I've seen responses to this book that question the lack of landscape or historical detail, but this is a novel about character and at it's heart, a stylish black comedy. A lengthy description of Sierra Nevadas just wouldn't fit here and the history is a backdrop. Eli and Charlie don't fit the romantic notions of cowboys on the range. They are cold, hard killers, who live in their own tiny and deluded universes. I'm not saying this novel isn't rich in sensory detail, it is. At times you can almost taste the dirt, sweat and blood of a time and place that was truly wild.
Eventually they arrive in San Francisco at the height of the gold-rush. The city is overrun with  obsessed and possessed people, going slowly crazy with gold-fever. Eli and Charlie with their skewed moral values fit in nicely and the mission takes an unexpected turn. It is at this point that the story really comes alive and it seems less like a bunch of random events on a road trip and becomes something complex with causes and effects. This is needed at this point as some of the scenes seem unrelated and not particularly pulling the story forward in the early stages.
The fraternal relationship between Eli and Charlie is always shifting and changing and sits at the core of the novel. As Eli moves through the story he starts to fall out of his little universe and sees Charlie and himself from a new perspective. He begins to question their choices and occupation, not so much with a conscience, but with a desire for things to just be different. This aspect seemed spot on and is what the made the novel real and compelling for me.
This is one of the most entertaining reads I've had for awhile and I would completely recommend it to anyone who likes their novels a little bit strange, a little bit stylised and touched with dark comedy. I'm sure this novel will go down well with the younger age-bracket. The Sisters Brothers reminds me of Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. Like Pierre, De Witt seems able to show America through the lens of an 'outsider' and then extract something fresh and inventive from those well-worn wagon trails.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I Got His Blood on Me and Teju Cole

I'm reading my friend, Lawrence Patchett's, debut book of short stories at the moment, I Got His Blood on Me. It was brilliant, obviously, and I am biased, but having known Lorry for quite a while and been to many group workshops where he has read my poems and provided feedback on others' work, I think I've only actually read a handful of his stories. Most of which were unfinished and in an early draft, so I am partially fresh on these I think.

And that was proven in the very first story which carries the title of the book. I read an early draft of this story and at that stage it was only about a third of its current length and had some 'time-travel' paradox type issues from my point of view. But wow, how much richer, more complex and more balanced it is now. I am so impressed with his ability to rework something. And that is one thing I know about Lorry, he is the hardest working writer I know. His stories are long  and complex and I know from talking to him he wrestles with them, with the characters, the plot, the structure.  It's not easy for him to write a story, which may sound like a revelation, but it's not. Most of writers I know struggle horribly with their writing, a story or poem can be a bit like a pit bull terrier at times, it locks its jaws on to you and won't let go. You can pull it by its back legs, put a hose in its mouth, but in the end you just have to hang in there, persevere with it. And what happens in the end is the reader gets a perfectly formed work like 'I Got His Blood on Me', the reader oblivious to all the work that has gone on behind the scenes.

I went and saw Teju Cole at Unity books a couple of days ago. He was incredibly smart and interesting and I want to read Open City very much. He also has a beard and bald head. I like that. One interesting thing he said about his book is that he is interested in the narrative of small moments, of individual sentences and then the narrative of the grand idea behind the book. It's the bits in between, commonly known as plot, that he is not so interested in. Fair enough point of view I think and an interesting way to write a novel, more poem-like or short-story like perhaps, but interesting all sameBut part of me thinks, why can't we have all three, why can't we have the sentence, the  plot and the theme? If you can nail all those at once, that is a truly great work of art I think.

I Got His Blood on Me attempts to do just that. The plot is clear, simple, right there on the page. The motives are explained, the characters are tangible, you don't have to scratch your head reading between the lines, there's no ambiguity (at least not from the author anyway). On a simple story level, they are a pleasure to read. But then you dig down, burrow below and there is that other stuff, the crafted moments and descriptions, and of course the smattering of grand ideas - the appropriation of history, biography and the life of the 'other'. And there's no cheesy, easy endings either, this is a work of literature, you have to think to get the full value out of it. But if you just want a good old 'romp' - these stories will provide that in spades.

I will be reading more I Got His Blood on Me soon and will get back on that.

Note: I also liked Teju's comment that he wants to 'use the least complex words to describe the most complex ideas'. That one's still sitting with me.

Lorry has his own website now. See the 'links' section.

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