Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How Did the Book Club Go? Patrick DeWitt Pens a Modern Take on The Old Western in The Sisters Brothers.

There are of course many takes on what a book club should be. A lot of folks think a book club should be comforting. We hardly have time to read, so why should we read something we don’t necessarily want to read? Let us get together and have fun.

I can recommend titles to this vision of a book club as well as any other bookseller. But I love a vision that stretches. Read something uncomfortable. Try a graphic novel. Read a novel in verse. Choice memoirs of people whose lives you can’t possibly imagine. Try something in translation.

I read outside my comfort zone all the time, and I can sum the reason up I a simple phrase—author events. While I hardly boast of reading every event we host (nothing else would get done), I pride myself on reading several per month. But of course if you can’t read everything, what do you leave out? And what I usually leave out are novels that my other booksellers have read.

That usually means I usually don’t have to face my own discomfort with violence because I will always have two or three other readers who are less lily livered than I. Right now we’re gearing up for our event with Donald Ray Pollock, for example, on Tuesday, July 17. He’s written a story collection, Knockemstiff, and a novel, The Devil All the Time, both set in working class Ohio. This guy’s work is beautiful, but it’s also brutal. It’s like a Quentin Tarantino-Flannery O’Connor mashup. And even with Carl now reading mostly about hospital procurement, I’ve still got several fans on staff who can help get out the word. What’ s my read going to do? It will keep me hiding under my bed, and how’s that going to help Boswell?

That said, I was chatting with our in-store lit group, and we discussed how despite having a quest for diversity (and yes, we have read a graphic novel), there are still some things I shy away from. So why not face my fears head on and pick a Western, and a violent one at that. Now you know here that I do read a good number Western writers, but they tend to be modern, and they also tend to be quiet. Western writers don’t necessarily write Westerns, after all.

But of course, I can’t just pick a Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour. No, we need to choose Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which seemingly was nominated (and often won) just about every Canadian award offered last year. Like our own Shauna Singh Baldwin, deWitt qualifies for not just those awards but the Man Booker too, where he was a finalist. Paperback jacket above, hardcover below.

It’s the story of two brothers, who have a contract to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. Why does the Commodore want him dead? Oh, I don’t know, I think he stole something. It doesn’t matter to Charlie, and Eli (our narrator) goes along because it’s the brotherly thing to do. They are outlaws alright, and ones with a twisted morality. Charlie’s sociopathic tendencies were beaten into him by his abusive father (which once again leads me back to Abdul/JJ in The Kid). If he asks for something, particularly if he wants to buy it, and you don’t want to give it, well then it’s not his fault if he robs you for it, or even shoots you. But Eli isn’t exactly a paragon of morality—he is just a bit more troubled by the consequences.

One of the things that I noticed in reading about The Sisters Brothers is how often critics refer to the humor in the novel. I will say that I didn’t think it was uproarious or anything, but I think the way deWitt changes the tone from light to dark and back in an instant is done quite well. I was particularly amused by Eli Sisters’s obsession with brushing his teeth. The hardcover jacket tried to capture that straight up/postmodern/parody triple hybrid, whereas the paperback jacket focuses more on the historical angle. The problem with the paperback jacket? Both brothers in the photo are way too thin. Eli is distinctly chunky, such that there’s a lot of obsession with dieting. OK, that was pretty funny too.

So here’s what the gang at the book club thought about The Sisters Brothers

a. All eight attendees either loved the book or were mixed. It turned out that nobody disliked it. So much for going out side our comfort zone. We're seemingly up for anything (as long as it's great).

b. We agreed with some critics who noted the story could have been more descriptive about place. It's interesting that deWitt chose that route, considering how distinctive that part of Oregon and California is. But we took issue with other critics who called the brother sociopaths. They might have had a warped morality and a misplaced empathy, but they clearly had both, even Charlie.

c. Whereas some folks have trouble with the ending (which of course I won't divulge), some of us noted that the novel is in a sense, the triumph of Eli. Figure that one out yourself. (At right is a snapshot from deWitt's trailer.)

d. So after all this back and forth about violence, we mostly agreed that the violence in this book wasn't as disturbing as that in Andre Dubus III's Townie. Perhaps that's partly because it's fictional, and the humor takes the edge off. But J. noted that in both books, the violence is really seen to be mental, not physical.

e. Picaresque, yes. The humor is certainly there. We found ourselves quite taken with these lawless outlaw brothers. How strange is that? And someone would just say "toothbrush" or "be a better horse" and everyone would turn to fits and giggles.

f. Cormac McCarthy-esque? I guess every novel, and certainly every Western aspires to this kind of McCarthyism. But those of us who read McCarthy (I haven't, so I abstained. I know, embarrassing) felt like deWitt was coming from a totally different place, with a totally different style. Want some better comparisons? We went for Charles Portis and Mark Twain.

Here are some links to good reviews and interviews:
--John Vernon reviews deWitt in The New York Times
--Ron Charles retracts his statement "the Western is dead" in the Washington Post
--Carolyn Kellogg compares novel to Deadwood series in the Los Angeles Times
--And the fact that the Guardian even chose Jane Smiley says a lot about the book, what your expectations might be, and the treat you might get instead
--A column in the Toronto Star after the Canadian prizes started rolling in
--Q&A from the Portland Mercury here

And just in case you're on the fence about choosing this book, here's a recommendation from another Boswellian:

" The infamous Sisters brothers are a force to be reckoned with.  The very mentioning of their identity sends common townsfolk scurrying, and for good reason.  Under order of the sinister and mysterious Commodore, brothers Charlie and Eli make tracks from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill Hermann Warm, a man who wronged their boss.  What ensues is a violent, bloody, peculiar, and hilarious journey across state lines, intersecting with a motley crew of odd characters and odder situations.  The story is told from brother Eli's perspective, torn between loyalty to his psychopath brother Charlie and meandering his way back to decent humanity.  A fantastic work of Western noir, darkly comic with incredibly clever writing."
--Greg Bruce, Boswell Book Company

Our next two meetings: Monday, August 6, 7 pm: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka

Tuesday, September 4, 7 pm: West of Here, by Jonathan Evison. It's a long one, but it's also a #1 Indie Next pick and the author is coming to Boswell on September 12.

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