Books: the dying frontier. Endless. Silent. Waiting. This is a new Adventures in Poor Taste reoccurring review column hellbent on reminding everyone books can be pop culture too.
Its mission: books fight to the death to see which book is worth reading. To seek out and contact words that form sentences that form paragraphs that form chapters that form novels. To explore. To travel the vast published books, and make the search cut in half, where no man has gone before. A dueling book review.
This year saw the release of two books focusing on the great American mythology of cowboys, railroads and the vast epic frontier. Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams and Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers…get ready to battle. Both books hit best of 2011 lists, the holy prayer all books seek to stay relevant these days, but only one book may be absolved by reviews end.
Dealer: Five card stud, all players ready? The Sisters Brothers is big blind.
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt
Hardcover, 325 pages
Published May 1st 2011 by Ecco
If you’ve ever read a Western you’d know this: life is hard, it only gets harder and there is no such thing as unearned kindness. Enter The Sisters Brothers, a book that constantly asks the question, “you think shit was crazy in the old west? How about now?”
The book takes place in the underworld of the Old West of the 1850s from small dirty towns on the Oregon trail to the gold-depleted city of San Francisco. On the way, the Brothers take on Native Americans, learn the fresh caress of a toothbrush, sleep with a shaman woman and seek the hide of a man-eating blood red bear.
The Brothers Sisters draws two pair, aces and deuces. Trades in one card.
On the short list for the Man Booker Prize, this book is incredibly well written, particularly the believable internal narration of the compelling protaganist Eli Sisters. This character faces some troubling tasks on his odyssey cross country, not least of which is his increasingly violent brother Charlie, the strife that comes with being a hitman, dealing with his own miss placed violent temper and the biggest problem of all, not being able to lock down a woman. Eli is a bit simple, but he’s certain a woman could look past his killing, ravenous temper, or the need to babysit his ultra-violence addicted brother. No, he thinks he’s undesirable to a woman due to his dipping sauce of choice, bacon fat, bulging his waistline. Innocently inept I’d say, which makes him likable at least.
There are plot elements in this novel that only a modern story teller like deWitt could cull up. For instance, a charlatan has devised a way of pulling gold from stone by utilizing a “serum” that turns the skin to a boiled mess. Eli and Charlie seek this serum, first for their boss, but later because it seems like a ripe way to make a buck. It’s plausible and made more dangerous from our understanding of modern chemicals and gasoline.
The book intersperses gory violence with humor, which keeps things light and at the same time melancholy enough to remember that in the Old West, anything goes. The humor is subtle, but it’s there for the taking. After Charlie quick draws and kills 5 men, the leader lays on the ground blind and panting.
“What was that noise?” he asked.
‘That was a bullet going into you.’
“A bullet going into me where?’
‘Into your head.’
‘I can’t feel it. And I can’t hardly hear anything. Where’s the others?’
‘They’re lying next to you. Their heads have bullets, also.’
‘They do? Are they talking? I can’t hear them.’
‘No, they’re dead.’
While this interchange is cold and twisted, it’s also a great example of the dark humor within. The conversation is equally ludicrous and haunting. Of course that’s a recurring theme in this book and all westerns; anything goes and only the quick witted get the small victories.
The Brothers Sisters draws another deuce. Full house. The Brothers Sisters goes all in.
Train Dreams: A Novella
by Denis Johnson, Bettina Abarbanell
Published August 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Originally printed in the acclaimed literary magazine The Paris Review in 2002, this book is written by Denis Johnson, the short story writer and poet known for Jesus’ Son that received much notoriety in the 90s. Much like Johnson’s poetry, this novella covers the West poetically:
And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.
…which flows as if delivered by dream.
With trip queens Train Dreams asks for 2 cards.
Set at the dawn of the 20th century, Robert Grainier works for a lumber company that employs “Chinamen” to do a larger part of the labor. The book opens with Grainier and a few men set to the task of killing one of these Chinese men who has been accused of stealing. They attempt to throw him off a train bridge into a creek, but the man ends up throwing himself down, clutching the skeleton scaffolding holding up the train tracks. On his way, the omniscient narrator ruminates:
Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.
A reminder: the unknown can strike at any moment. And it does. It takes Granier’s wife in a freak wild fire. The fire also completely snuffs out the entire town he called home, leaving a thick layer of ash behind.
Things go from sad to strange, as neighbors claim a nightmare is attacking their life stock, entering the valley they live in, which turns out to be werewolf by description.
People feared …more wolf-people, more monsters who eventually, logically, would attract the lust of the Devil himself and bring down over the region all manner of evil influence.
In a world filled with monsters, how can anyone rebuild from the ashes? The book subtly asks these questions, forcing the reader to put themselves in the characters shoes increasing the dread of the story. That makes this book decidedly more dark in nature, almost more horrific than The Brothers Sisters, even though it carries with it no gore, violence or constant calamity. That’s the power of dreams.
Both books look at the Old West methodically, from the big picture to the way a creek coos to the casual listener. The Old West is a despicable place, filled with hard lives and even harder choices. The Brothers Sisters delivers a sense of humor even if it’s as black as night.
Train Dreams flips the cards, trip queens ace kicker.
See onlookers gulp.
See dealer sweat.
The Brothers Sisters sighs, looks down, lays cards down.
Train Dreams cracks a huge smile, reaches for the pot.
The Brothers Sisters clears throat, tosses the cards onto the pot. The cards fall face up, Full House.
Dealer: The Brothers Sisters Wins!
She’ll see you out.