I've not come to adore Westerns through the traditional means. I was not weaned on a diet of John Wayne and Bonanza. Growing up, those dusty ranches aI've not come to adore Westerns through the traditional means. I was not weaned on a diet of John Wayne and Bonanza. Growing up, those dusty ranches and hard-bitten cowhands seemed too similar to the world as it appeared in the town around me to keep much of a hold upon my imagination. I was always more into interstellar travel than I was in leading a wagon train over the Rockies, more George Lucas than Louis L'Amour, or at the least more Kurosawa than Leone. You would never find me spitting chew at a rodeo.
Yet somehow along the way those borders between genre fiction started melting away for me. I could appreciate that Han shooting Greedo is an entry in a long canon of gruff antiheroes attempting to live in a lawless world according to an unstated moral code of their own, first of whose silent proclamations reads "survive at all costs." Moral flexibility! Ain't it grand?!? We can root for both Cristian Bale, the honest homesteader, and Russell Crowe, the outlaw with a heart of gold, without necessarily addressing the dicey choices that have brought both men to such desperate measures.
This is a worthwhile point of view to bring into Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a novel so cinematic in its renderings that I have been helpless to deny the incessant Hollywood allusions plaguing me as I concoct this review. There are no white knights within these pages though, just fellow humans all struggling to claw their way to the top of the dung heap. The titular siblings, Eli and Charles Sisters, are shooters for a West Coast power broker known only as The Commodore (a name which couldn't help but make me think of James Coburn every time he was mentioned). As oddball duos in fiction are often known to be, Charles feels a natural affinity for the work of assassination, never batting an eye when breaking an oath or beating a woman, while younger brother Eli finds himself questioning his occupation for the first time as he and his brother journey from Central Oregon to gold rush-era San Francisco and dreaming of a day when he may hang up his spurs for good.
Strangely, what this book reminded me of the most (outside of all the literary allusions to McCarthy and Faulkner that are lobbed its way) is Jim Jarmusch's 1995 oddball Johnny Depp Western, Dead Man, with accompanying Crazy Horse soundtrack. There's the wanton disregard for natural life, when an entire family of beavers are poisoned by toxic runoff, there are psychotic fur trappers, and, of course, there are more corrupt men and women than you'd find outside of a James Ellroy novel. This is a blessing and a curse, though, as readers can thrill on DeWitt's particular renditions of these genre tropes while at the same time reconciling themselves to the knowledge that nothing too unpredictable will happen.
Still, with all of this fantastic window dressing, at times I found myself flipping ahead to see how many more pages I had in each (admittedly short) chapter. The pages with Eli questioning his motives for being a hired gun can get to be especially tedious, if only because the arguments evinced are as familiar as the very necessity of having a fallen character seeking redemption for readers to relate to. An enormously fast read, and one which I am certain to recommend to my book group next month, it leaves me, more than anything, interested in what Patrick DeWitt will write for us next....more
This has been one hell of a winter of McCarthy for me. Starting in early January I began his award-winning Border Trilogy with much trepidation. HavinThis has been one hell of a winter of McCarthy for me. Starting in early January I began his award-winning Border Trilogy with much trepidation. Having previously only read his Pulitzer-winning father-son dystopian nightmare, The Road, and found it severely lacking, I was curious to see if McCarthy's previous works were worthy of the acclaim in which they are held. After three weeks of being immersed in one of the most bleak interpretations of humanity and exposure to tragedy that would make even the ancient Greeks wince in sympathy, I can easily attest to McCarthy's merits as a thinker and a writer. That said, while still an eminently enjoyable read that I could not make myself put down (even under direct threat of bodily harm), Cities of the Plain is still the weakest of the Border Trilogy.
On face it sounds like a mishmash designed to cash in on the name value of two of McCarthy's most haunting characters. John Grady Cole, the lovelorn horse whisperer of All The Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham, the haunted wanderer of The Crossing, are working on a ranch in New Mexico in the early days of 1952. Threatened by plummeting profits and the loss of their grazing land through an eminent domain seizure by a Cold War military looking for the most unwanted, hard-scrabble land on which to test their weapons in the first days of the nuclear arms race. Cowboys in an atomic age, the protagonists know their world is ending and deal with it in their tried and tested ways. Grady Cole by throwing himself into a(nother) forbidden romance, this time no estancia owner's daughter but an epileptic prostitute across the border in Juarez, while Billy Parham rides the range from one end to another trying to outrun the ghosts of his past.
I have to admit that for the first two hundred pages I didn't quite understand the point of even including Parham's character as, up to that point, the story focused almost entirely on Grady Cole's fantasy of saving the hooker with the heart of gold. Of course, this being McCarthy, nothing works out as it should and eventually Parham's involvement makes sense as his coterie of shades swells in number and he attempts once more to find justice in Mexico, the country that has peeled away one attachment after another from him.
It is with his involvement that the story redeems itself. The character of Billy Parham stands as one of my all-time favorites. Desirous of new frontiers, haunted by the death of his family, always searching for a new place to call home and forever unable to attain it- he's like the Flying Dutchman on horseback. McCarthy uses him to great effect within these pages, too, as both a vengeful spirit and a barometer for measuring the changing standards of an age as the Southwest moves from the freedom of the open range to the ignorant, militia-enforced, border fence-building, we-don't-hablo-no-espanol standards of today....more
I'll admit it freely- I was unprepared for Cormac McCarthy. Sure, I've heard all the reviews: that he's bleak, despairing, has a dark and twisted worlI'll admit it freely- I was unprepared for Cormac McCarthy. Sure, I've heard all the reviews: that he's bleak, despairing, has a dark and twisted worldview, offers little hope for the future, et cetera ad nauseum. It's one thing to hear about this and to know that cracking a Cormac McCarthy book is not going to be an exercise in gumdrops and rainbows, it's a whole other thing to actually open a book and expose yourself to over 400 pages of brutally hard-living and events that shake your faith in humankind even as you marvel at the tenacity of the human spirit.
The second in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, you know within the opening pages that this is a far different beast of a book than the award-winning All The Pretty Horses. The protagonists are similar, both teen boys looking for adventure and meaning on the other side of the thin imaginary line that divides American soil from Mexican. Yet where John Grady Cole descended into Mexico to care for horses and search out love, The Crossing's Billy Parham is on a quest that makes Sisyphus' efforts look like a lark. After trapping a pregnant wolf that has been preying on his family's cattle, Billy finds he can't bring himself to kill her and instead sets forth to the mountains of Mexico to release her back into the wild.
Of course nothing goes as it should and by the time Billy meanders back across the border to the ruins of his life he is hardly the immature youth who first set out on the long road through unfriendly lands. Through a series of events that are better left unwritten here, Billy finds himself drawn to Mexico again and again as the years go by, each journey removing more and more of his ties to the world and rendering him a living ghost haunted by the choices he's made and the vicissitudes of fate that have left him bereft.
Much has been made of the brutality and violence in McCarthy's works and I would be remiss if I didn't mention something about them. Don't get me wrong, this book is violent. There are descriptions of extreme brutality that makes you wonder as to the mental stability of the author- a particularly gruesome description of a man's eyes being sucked from his skull by a perverse German still haunt me. It's not only human-on-human violence within these pages, though. Some of the most inexplicable and haunting acts are performed on animals- the wolf, a dog, Billy's horse- which does far more to bring home the nature of the harsh world that Billy exists in.
The interesting thing, for me, is that most of the violence happens off-stage and is made known to the reader only through the effects it has on his characters. You don't get the action, but the reaction. It was this remove from the actual violence that made it seem that much more hard-hitting. Even the violence that occurs on-stage is briefly described in favor of longer passages dealing with the characters recovery from these events. It is this, the focus on the consequences of violence rather than the violence itself, that sticks with the reader long after the last page has been turned.
McCarthy is a man who has ruminated at great lengths on the darker nature of humanity and it is laid out fantastically herein. Questions of faith in a god that lets such atrocities as described above occur, moments of extreme kindness and charity by the most dispossessed inhabitants of the Sonoran desert, the sheer random nature of some of the events- McCarthy has crafted a fable that cuts right to the heart of humanity and leaves you questioning whether original sin may actually be an affliction which we suffer. At the very least, he's earned a dedicated fan and I can not wait to read the concluding book of the trilogy....more