Sunday, October 02, 2016

Book 69: Sometimes a cowboy story is just a cowboy story.

One of the first stories I ever wrote was a cowboy story: Buzzards Loop it was called, and it dealt with two cowboys, Josh and Presley, who were riding in the middle of a desert, having apparently been doing that for (possibly) ever.

I later wrote another one, The Death Of The Second-Hand Cowboy, in which the Second-Hand Cowboy is a character in a series of stories and realizes that his author has slated him to be killed off.

I've written a lot more since then, many of them very short, and the thing is: I don't really like cowboys.  The cowboy era was well before my growing up; almost as soon as I could understand the world around me, the world around me was taken over by Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and the like, so I never grew up with cowboys in my blood.

Or did I? Star Wars was largely based on the film Hidden Fortress, a 1958 Japanese film that sounds a lot like a Western only set in Japan; and Battlestar Galactica could have been Wagon Train. Much later, Firefly was basically a Western with spaceships, too.

I'm not a fan of reductionism, boiling everything down so far that you can claim it's all the same thing; I think of that as the hamburger argument: once, when I was cooking dinner, Oldest Daughter asked what I was making.  "Tacos," I said, as I began browning the ground beef.

"We just had hamburger last week," Oldest complained, equating the two based on one ingredient.

So if every book or show that vaguely involved cowboy-like characters, or could be transposed into a cowboy show, was determined to be a cowboy show, then you've reduced the idea down to absurd levels, like those foolish people who claim there are only 7 basic plot lines.

When I write about cowboys, though, I rarely write about cowboys; I use the cowboys the same way I use robots, frogs, and Heaven: as symbols to manipulate around a story that may, or may not, have anything to do with cowboys.  The reason I use cowboys sometimes, and robots sometimes, is that cowboys are a shorthand, the same way robots are and Batman is: When I say cowboy you instantly get a feel for what I'm talking about. The word sets a tone and helps provide background information to you. Once I said it was cowboys riding around in the desert, you could almost picture the entire scene and fill in the sounds and smells and sights yourself.

I'm used, then, to seeing cowboys as almost a mystical kind of presence; my cowboys, like my zombies, are surrogates for lots of other things. Which meant that when I decided to give The Sisters Brothers a try, I wasn't sure if I'd like it.

I only downloaded The Sisters Brothers because I had finished Regional Office and none of the other books I'd requested were available, so I was browsing through the online stacks when I stumbled across The Sisters Brothers, and the cover caught my eye. When I read description, I found something there to get me hooked, and I wasn't disappointed.

The story is told by Eli Sisters, who with his brother Charlie are hired guns working for a man called "The Commodore." The Sisters Brothers' job is to kill the people The Commodore tells them to kill, and at the outset of the book, Charlie tells Eli they've got a new job, and that Charlie is to be the "lead man" on the job, because The Commodore doesn't like how their last job went, so he wants a clear chain of command. That previous job is never detailed, but is hinted and and touched on briefly and somewhat horrifyingly as they go through the book.

Most of the book takes place as they travel from Oregon to San Francisco to track down their target, a man who is said to have stolen from The Commodore. This makes Eli start to wonder, and he asks Charlie if Charlie doesn't find it a little suspicious that so many people are able to steal from The Commodore, given how powerful and feared The Commodore is. Charlie doesn't want to think about that, as Charlie doesn't want to think about much.

The story meanders around, with enough strange things happening to make the book feel almost like maybe there's something weird going to happen; the men run into a woman who spends the night making a beaded necklace, and when they wake in the morning the necklace has been hung over the doorway, making them reluctant to walk through it without fear of a curse; Eli runs into a little girl who tells him of a dream she had in which she poisoned a dog, and other strange characters like the crying man and a prospector holding a chicken or a woman with a sort of 1860s version of three-card monte all add to the unsettling feeling of the book.

When the men finally get to their destination, they find that things have changed from the reports on the ground, and their trip has already started changing them; Eli talks openly of quitting, Charlie appears at times angered by this and at times saddened, and they slowly close in on their quarry, only to then find themselves changing allegiances again.

At times gruesome, and at times funny, The Sisters Brothers was captivating; I was genuinely curious as to what would happen next and how this would all pan out. It's a book that both trades on the premise of it being a western featuring cowboys, and somehow makes that fact seem irrelevant at the same time-- a cowboy story that doesn't have to have cowboys in it, in other words, which I guess makes it the perfect story for me.

The ending of the book manages to put a perfect cap on it; I wasn't sure the author would be able to do that, but by the time the story was over, I felt like it had ended the only way it could have, or maybe the only way it should have.

As I said at the outset, to me cowboys are more symbols than anything I see as a real character or a real story setting; The Sisters Brothers takes that conceit and works it all the way back around: Eli and Charlie are anti-cowboys; they take our romantic notions of cowboys and don't so much turn them on their head as simply show them to us.

The "Old West" tends to be romanticized: we even idolize the bad guys, Billy The Kid and so on, and never give much thought to the fact that these were, in fact, bad guys; in Eli and Charlie Sisters, the author shows us bad guys doing bad things, and makes no effort to sugarcoat it or romanticize it. Their life is uncomfortable, they themselves are not nice people, and the people they deal with are largely not much better. The quasi-mystical bits of flotsam and jetsam that pop up in the book serve to only emphasize that there's not a lot of magic in a story like this, and that the small glimmers of goodness are about all we're going to get. In a book like this, that's more than enough.

1 comment:

Andrew Leon said...

I grew up watching a lot of westerns. Even after Star Wars. It colored my world.
But I probably won't read this one.