This is the second in a series of 52. For more information on this personal project go here: 52 Reads Project
Stabby is a cool human who will always be better than me at roller skating (and probably a lot of other stuff). She was a crucial pick-up for RSA during our winning season, and for that she’ll always be tops in my book.
Stabby recommended The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt about which she says, “It’s funny, in the Old West, I really enjoyed it, fun word play.”
At one point I had an advance copy of this book. I started on it right away, but put it down and never came back to it. Stabby also mentioned that DeWitt’s novel will be a movie–starring John C. Reilly, who numbers amongst my favorite faces. Knowledge of this production alone has kept this book on my neglected to-read list for years. Bless young Stabby for pushing me to actually pick up it again.
As far as genres go, Westerns are kind of bottom of the barrel for me. I think I’ve seen some of the Eastwood canon, but maybe I just watched Back to the Future III a half dozen of times. I’ve also tried some John Wayne, but those films hold little resonance. I certainly have never cracked the spine of a Louis L’Amour or Elmer Kelton novel. I don’t know if it’s the sort of broad masculinity that normally fuels these narratives that sends me to yawnsville or if it’s all the loping, silent travel up hill and down dale.
But, um, I’ve changed my mind on that last bit.
The Sisters Brothers proved a particularly relevant read to my current whereabouts. The journey of the titular characters begins in Oregon City, but meanders its way down to the former gold mining town in which I currently reside. While in Jacksonville, narrator Eli Sisters tries, in vain, to go on a diet in a western town that steadily serves meat and potatoes.
Because it takes place in my new backyard, the setting of the novel feels much more accessible to me than it would have when I was still firmly mired in the Midwest. I’m more familiar with the topography and how it defines how towns spring up versus sprawl out. As I commute to work in a city 30 miles away, or hike up the nearby hills, the cost the rough terrain must have exacted on those on horseback or on foot is more tangible. In the book, the Sisters cross the pass into Northern California with a young boy trailing on a inadequate horse. I know how steep that now-paved road feels even in an air conditioned car.
I often wonder at my new neighbors who are the progeny of the sort of rotgut drinking, tough guys that inhabit Westerns. Or maybe they just think they are.
This book offers its own ramshackle charm. Eli Sisters, the kinder half of the notorious and mercenary Sisters Brothers, is my favorite kind of character: a little morose and a little romantic, he is a haphazard sort of person contending with and angry inner violence. He spends the book cresting into self-awareness and the results are sweet, silly, and sad. It’s a picaresque sort of novel, and as such strings together a bunch of interconnected vignettes of a Wild West lifestyle including the benefits of tooth powder, brandysickness, dueling mishaps, and a half dozen or so territorial beavers. Novels that meander like this one often lose their way, but I found the place the story ends satisfying in its strangeness and worth the journey.
The Sisters Brothers might not be your typical Western, but in its darkly humorous traverse of newly familiar-to-me terrain, I found a welcome surprises. This read reassured me that sometimes you put a book down so you can pick it back up when you’re ready for it.
Next up: Acoustic Kitty by Bob Rybarczyk recommended by Peg.
I Await the Devil’s Coming by Mary MacLane: This book is not at all a Western, but it is a terrifically erratic and delightful testimony by a young woman whose journey starts in Butte, Montana. An outspoken proto-feminist and emotional firebomb, MacLane etches a memoir that I am happy to pick up again and again.