Friday, October 07, 2016

You can't spell "ironic twist on voter disenfranchisement" without G-O-P

This showed up on my Twitter feed yesterday:

Earlier this year, a federal judge in Wisconsin declared unconstitutional portions of Republican laws that (among other things) curtailed absentee voting. The judge found that the absentee voting provisions -- passed into law by former Republican darling Scott Walker in 2011 -- were specifically designed to limit minority voting. Wisconsin's Republican Attorney General is appealing the ruling.

So what Trump means is "WHITE PEOPLE SIGN UP TODAY". But you knew that, right?

Book 70: A book that needed to exist, and does.

City On Fire is startlingly good, in a way that's hard to describe other than that phrase: startlingly good.

It's not startling like an explosion; it's startling like the way life is: gradually growing on you how great things can really be, until it explodes in your head and you are happy to have existed. Which is weird because it's also a very sad book, in many respects.

It is a book about New York City in the 1970s, mostly, and mostly means "on the surface" there. It's a book about suburban kids getting in over their heads, would-be anarchists becoming real anarchists, rich people and their rich people problems, and, weirdly, a book, too, about fireworks.

It's a book that is overwhelmingly long; I want to say it was 3,000 pages, but that's probably not technically accurate. Amazon lists it at 944 pages, but it could have gone on for far longer and I doubt I would have minded.

It is a book that is all-encompassing, creating an entire world that is so real. That the book feels real is odd, in a way, because the characters are at the same time stock characters but somehow also realistic, maybe because they are so stock-characterish that they come full circle and move past that.

It's a book that in the end is almost mystical about how life works out, with resolution by, if not God, then some other machina of the deus.  It has endings that for the most part are happy, if you forget all the things that have happened so far.

It's a book that I want to read again, and probably someday I will; it's already earned a spot on the list of favorite books in my entire lifetime, and I only just finished it the other day. In this case, I didn't wait to write it up because I was tired; I waited because I wanted to finish absorbing it.

Other review of the book have compared it to Dickens (which I get, maybe a little, only in spirit, though), and to longform TV shows like The Wire (never watched it, never wanted to).  I think the book it's closest, too, though, is Bonfire Of The Vanities, with which it shares a lot of stock situations, as well, and which is similar in its intent and ambition.

Here is what I can muster as a summary of the plot(s) of the book: in general, each of the many, many characters -- some of whom are essentially offstage until they show up for a brief starring turn -- is touched on as they revolve around, or build up to, New Year's Eve 1976 and the 7 months that follow it.  There is a thing that happens on New Year's Eve; to say what happens would ruin what that thing is, and so I won't.  This thing is both the culmination of, and progenitor of, most if not all of the other events in the book, many of which are in their own way as much a turning point or major event, also. (One of the possible themes of the book is that turning points are what we think they are. There are enough major events happening to all the characters to make it hard to pick which one is the pivotal point in their life. One character is adopted, has his father die, falls in love, has a religious experience,  and gets hooked on drugs -- and yet none of those things seems as important, in this character's arc, as the attendance of a rock show at a club on New Year's Eve.)

That brief skeletal summary is hardly enough to do justice to a book that traces its characters back to 1950, and spans New York, San Francisco, Georgia, and Scotland, so here's a bit more: the main characters in the book are all connected in some way.  There is Samantha, a 17-year-old who has just started college in New York, and who likes taking pictures of graffiti, trying to be punk rock, and hanging around. Sam is adored by Charlie, an adopted kid also from Long Island who loves her with the desperate kind of crush that only a 17 year old can have -- he shaves his head into a mohawk and swipes the car to go visit her at one point -- and Sam and Charlie hang around Nicky Chaos and his group of "PostHumanists," a sort of mixup of punk rockers, would-be philosophers, and anarchists that include members of Charlie and Sam's favorite band, Ex Post Facto.

That band, meanwhile, was started by "Billy Three Sticks," who is also known as William Hamilton-Sweeney III, the estranged son of a millionaire financier; Billy's sister Regan and her husband Keith and their kids have big roles in the book, as well.

I could probably keep going. There's enough plot to keep everyone happy, and it all overlaps in these big swoops of storytelling. But there are other things to discuss with the book, whose richness goes beyond simply an engrossing story populated with people that are interesting to follow around. The book is a masterpiece, if you ask me, in so many ways, and can be thought about in so many ways.

First, there's the way I read it. I originally got the book as a digital loan from the library. You only get those for three weeks, and I was only on about page 400 when the loan expired.  That alone is remarkable: I do not read quickly, and 400 pages in three weeks is a major commitment for me. When I requested the book again, I was something like 5th in line, which could mean as much as three months before I get it back, and I couldn't wait, so I took the book out in hardcover from the library. Because it was on a special list of the best-sellers, I only got that version for two weeks; a week in, I requested a copy from another library, so that when the first 2 weeks expired, I got the book a third time.

That's a demonstration of how enjoyable it was to read this book. Over the five weeks that I read it, it slowly took over from almost all other reading, until by the final week I was skipping reading news stories and not watching any television just to read this book. And when it ended, when all the mysteries were solved and plot lines tied up -- some in fantastic fashion -- I didn't want it to be over.

That's the other thing about the book: it's somehow not enough. A few reviews I read said that Halberg cut some 200 pages from the book, and I can't figure out why. Hopefully they were cut because they weren't any good, although that's hard to conceive; a book this skillfully done is not likely to have nearly 1/6 of its original volume be deadweight, if you ask me.

I remember when I read The Stand, I read the author's cut, and King explained that the originally-published version had been edited down to meet some sort of arbitrary criteria. (According to Wikipedia, the publisher thought people wouldn't read the 1,152-page version, so King cut out 400 pages -- 1/3 of the total! -- to make the book more marketable.)  You'd like to think that with longform television series, and even longform movies -- Kill Bill and The Lord Of The Rings and now the Marvel and DC Universes -- coming out, publishers would trust readers to buy a book regardless of its length, if it's good. (And that, again, is a reason why electronic publishing is generally better than paper-books: you don't have to worry about shipping and production costs in an ebook, and you don't have the problem of holding a giant book that weighs like 10 pounds as you try to read in bed at night).  Maybe someday I'll read City on Fire the way Hallberg intended it to be read, if in fact the 200 pages were ones he wanted but was forced to cut.

Then there is how long the book took to write, and what Hallberg says he was trying for. He says it took him five years to write, after thinking about it for 9 years before that. Hallberg is I guess a book reviewer who has only written this novel, which is all the novels anyone could be expected to produce in a lifetime, especially when that one is this good. (I hope it's not his only one; I hope he writes more brilliant stuff.)  Hallberg said in an interview he wanted to be Dom DeLillo-esque, which is a very literary goal: most people would, I think, say they wanted to be an author that is recognizable outside of the literary world. I read DeLillo's book about the baseball (Underworld), which was picked as the best book of the previous 25 years back in 2006. I kind of remember it? I think? Anyway, I don't think Dom DeLillo has the kind of general acclaim that other esteemed authors might, and picking DeLillo might be the authorial equivalent of when someone says "I don't own a TV," but after having read the book, I kind of think Hallberg is sincere: I think he wanted to write something serious, something that would resonate and be around and be thought about, as opposed to something that would instantly grab popular acclaim and then (maybe) fade. (For what it's worth, the book grabbed popular acclaim right away, with a $2,000,000 advance, one of the largest ever for 'literary' fiction, and the movie rights were sold to about a zillion countries and studios before it was published, too, so it's not like Hallberg scorned popularity.)  I think the point of Hallberg's ambition was to write a book he wanted to write, not a book we might want him to write, and I think he did that.

(I might be sympathetic to that point of view; I have been working for several months now on a new book, one that is only about 1/4 done and which might well take me a year or two to knock out, because I am trying something new for me, something that now has been influenced by the realization that books like City On Fire are possible: big books that think about lots of things.)

(The publisher, asked about lackluster sales, said "This is a book we want people to be reading in 20 years." I think maybe they will be?)(Then again, the real way to last a long time is to write genre fiction, as the secret of longevity is mostly popularity: if a lot of people liked you, you will be fondly remembered and passed on to generations, rebooted, revisited, and reworked. Ask Shakespeare, or Tolkien, or William Shatner, about the relative merits of "literary" versus "popular." William Faulkner never got to do Priceline commercials.

Not every reviewer liked City On Fire, and it didn't rise very far up the best seller lists.  The publisher gave away 6,500 copies, and a few months after it came out it had sold 75,000 copies -- which would've been about 225,000 copies short of making any money for the publisher.  Some people hated it; most people compared it to the same things I've compared it to: television series that delve into characters in depth, or Dickens.  Only a few articles about the book link it to The Bonfire Of The Vanities, which, like I said, was the book it reminded me of, especially in the early going. Both books deal with the intersection of money and poverty, both involve a crime and an investigation, both have a reporter with a bit of a drinking problem -- is there any other kind, in books? -- and both are vast in scope.  But they're like mirror images of each other in another respect.

Bonfire of the Vanities captured, like a butterfly pinned to a board, the 1980s perfectly. It took a vast, overarching moment in the culture, the 1980s, and encapsulated it, boiling the questions of that era -- questions that were mostly buried beneath a sheen of Reagan's Morning In America, the glow from the sun blocking our view of illegal arms sales and the institutionalization of trickle-up economics beginning the long decimation of the middleclass-- down to the essence of what was being fought out then (and now, still): rich versus poor, black versus white, men versus women, the power of the law and the power of money. Bonfire took a vast sprawling decade (one that still looms over America more than perhaps any other in the past century) and, despite setting the story in New York with a giant cast, made everything feel minute, personal: from the feel of the sweat under Sherman McCoy's collar to the way styrofoam peanuts clung to his pants to the peculiar glare of lights in Tommy Killian's office, it was a perfectly-detailed book in which the players almost became archetypes.  Bonfire was a novel the way Greek plays were plays: everything was layered over with meanings, everything symbolized something about the way we, as Americans, lived in that particular moment of our existence.

City On Fire shares the eye for detail and transmission of the sensual about the characters' experience: it's a visceral novel in how it feels, and reading it is like being on (what I imagine) New York streets in 1976 or 1977; reviewers have called it cinematic, and it is: there is no detail too small for Hallberg to communicate, and rather than bogging down the story, it makes the story feel real. But beyond that, City On Fire looks outward, asking us where we are now in comparison to then; Bonfire pulled everything in and said this is this moment: this is now.  Fire takes a moment in time (two, or three, actually: the Bicentennial, New Year's Eve, 1976, and the blackout in 1977) and explodes them outward, holding them up as a mirror to what has happened since then, how we got from there to here. It's like reverse nostalgia; instead of saying oh yeah I remember that cool, we look and say oh man that's how this became that.

(One critic asked "Why is the book set in 1977?" That's a silly question. Why is Star Wars set in the past, in space? Why is The Tempest set on an island or something weird [never read it]. It's set there because that's when Hallberg set it there, but if you read the book while actually thinking about the book, you can see that the setting of the book in that place, in that time, matters: it was the last time New York could be described as both wild and somehow accessible: by the 1980s, New York was a crime-ridden crack den, and by the 1990s it was a Disneyfied playground for celebrities. New York has followed America's path over the last forty years; it has reflected our recession, as a people and a society and an idea, into something less great, something where the real divides are papered over with fake culture wars foisted on us by political parties that are for all real purposes the same party, something where branding and marketing is so prevalent that we expect it, and welcome it, and defend it when some question whether perhaps we should not be engrossed by Kim Kardashian's literally-made-for-tv-melodrama. Hallberg's 1977 New York might well be the people we used to be, before we were DraftKinged into submission and left sitting on our sofas with 'microbrews' created by international conglomerates, bemoaning the fact that the two candidates we picked for President are in fact the two candidates we picked for president.  The book is set in 1977 because Hallberg's America wanted to point a finger at an America where someone could be a literary critic and ask 'why is the book set in 1977' and still be taken seriously.)

The book echoes 9/11 -- there may be a bomb, and it may be in a building, and the building is a center of commerce -- and talks about cheesy Bicentennial celebrations, and has cops going through both stereotypical motions and unique gestures; it has a demonstration that turns into a blackout that turns into a riot. It has misbehaving capitalists and insider trading and the failure of the American city and everything turning into money. City On Fire takes all of these things: bombs, murder, police, race, sexuality, art, vandalism, youth, divorce, criminals, and treats them as the headwaters of American culture now; there is a feeling that the book, despite being determinedly set in 1976 and 1977 for the most part, there is still a feeling like the book has somehow been 'ripped from the headlines,' as it were, and the headlines are not 40 year old musty newspapers  but instead are the Yahoo! emails some people still for some reason get in their inboxes, because searching for news on the Internet is hard.

There's a sense, in City On Fire, of a world on the edge of being out of control, of things going off the rails, of everyone ending up badly, and that sense is thrilling to someone like me, like us, who in fact live in another time where things feel like they're about to explode. There are a lot of similarities between the 70s and the 10s: coming off a decade of war, coming out of a financial struggle, racial troubles and leaders who don't seem able to cope and who aren't trustworthy, a shaky new world where the alliances and enemies aren't always clear, a culture that is badly divided and needs to find a way to work together, or at least coexist.  It's that sense, too, that City On Fire reminded me of Bonfire Of The Vanities: it captured the moment in which it was born, perfectly -- even though City doesn't pretend to be set in 2016, but thirty years earlier.

Some books grab me as important things, and seem to encapsulate a way I want to feel, or way I do feel, about the world.

Catch-22 is my favorite book in part because I so often think the world is absurd, because we can't always tell who our real enemies are, because it's hard not to see goals as arbitrary and somehow still receding in front of us, hard not to feel perhaps that there are powers toying with us for their own purposes that, when we comprehend them, will be sad and petty.

Rabbit, Run grabbed at the parts of me that wonder how we ended up in this life -- not the parts of the life we chose, but the parts of life where those were the only choices we ended up having -- and helped me understand the good, and bad, ways of dealing with a lack of choice, and understanding what each is.

Those books, and others, helped encapsulate a way of looking at the world, helped make sense of complicated thoughts I had. Books as therapy, as confessional, as friend -- and that's not such an unusual thought, given the amount of time we spend reading a book; starting a book is like starting a relationship, and ending one is sometimes the same sort of thing.  City On Fire worked on me on a different level than those, though. It did not mark some sort of emotional or intellectual breakthrough; I did not think Oh, that's how the world is when I read it.

When I was 16, I first heard songs by a rock group called The Violent Femmes. The Femmes sang about alienation and anger and loneliness and being misunderstood and exploding out of one's surroundings to do something.  As a 16 year old, I ate it up, even though your average suburban middle class teen (me) is about as alienated and misunderstood as a Golden Retriever; never mind that, though, teens feel that way, or want to feel that way at least part of the time, and the music made me feel like if I was that type of person, someone would understand me.  Even now, at 47, when I listen to it, I can feel the same sense of wanting to be misunderstood, a bit, and alienated, a bit, and lonely, a bit -- and at the same time wanting to feel those things but also feel like hey, these guys, they get it, they know how I am.

That's the kind of feeling I got reading City On Fire. Nearly every character, every storyline, every plot twist: It felt like hey these guys, they get it, they know how I am. I felt like I was reading a story about people like me grappling with the same kinds of ineffable forces I feel as though I struggle with. They might have their Demon Brother (if I have a quibble about this book, it is that the Demon Brother did not live up to the hype his name foretold, although maybe that was intentional?) and their psychological quirks and their drug trips and their religious fervor; but I have similar foes and similar ideas and similar beliefs to cope with, and even if they aren't the same, they're kindred spirits. Their struggles were proxies for the struggles we all feel.

It's a book that I, at least, needed to exist, and I'm glad it does.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Obamacare fixed everything nothing to see here move along

In just the same way that guaranteed student loans make college costs rise 700% faster than the cost of inflation and give way to a host of private colleges that scam kids out of tuition while providing no educational benefit, Obamacare's insurance mandate has helped contribute to further bloat and bureaucracy in the health care industry that allows for scams and higher costs for no reason whatsoever.

Jezebel reports that a couple was charged $39.95 for holding their baby after a C-section birth:

The story on Jezebel notes that there are the usual host of health-care explanations, the most common being that holding your baby in the ER requires the addition of an extra nurse 'to watch the baby.'

Obamacare was supposed to reduce health care costs; Obama predicted the 'average' family would save $2,500 per year.  Years into the program, health care spending continues to rise. While some of the causes are Republican-led states refusing Medicare expansion funds, the fact is costs are rising. Some predictions suggest they will rise by as much as 60 percent over the next 10 years, adding $4,000+ per year to the 'average' bill.

If you are pro-Obamacare, you point out that costs are increasing more slowly: 3-4% per year rather than 4-6% per year prior to Obamacare. The "average" savings works out to $135 per household -- that's $135 less than they would be, if Obamacare hadn't passed.

The White House itself said Obamacare wasn't the most important factor in the slowdown of health care cost increases; the major factor was generally deemed to be The Great Recession: people were too poor to go to the doctor.

Another problem: Deductibles are rising.  The National Review, which may not be the least-biased source, aptly described deductibles as the cost of using insurance; premiums are the cost of having insurance, but it's no good if you don't use it. We have a "high deductible" plan: we pay the first $4,000 of all health care each year, which effectively is another $350 or so per month on our health insurance premiums. High deductibles make people question whether they really need to go to the doctor, which may or may not be a good thing. Not going to a doctor at the first sign of a sickness may result in a worse sickness later on.  Two years ago, Sweetie got the flu; she didn't go to the doctor right away because she thought it was just a cold. Two days in, we had to take her to the Emergency Room because she'd been unable to hold anything down for two days and was badly dehydrated.  The ER doctor said if she'd gone to the doctor earlier he could have given her 'TheraFlu' and avoided much of the trouble. I took two days off of work to watch the kids. I'm salaried, so I didn't lose any money, but that's about 14 billable hours my firm didn't get, and meant that work for my clients was two days behind schedule.

A more reputable source, the New York Times, reported in 2015 that health-care deductibles were rising faster than workers' wages.  Industry experts described raising deductibles as the "go to" choice for cost savings: the cost savings are entirely on the employers and the health insurance companies, as there is no way to doublespeak your way into describing higher out-of-pocket costs for a person as a 'cost savings.'

No way, that is, unless you factor in that 40% of people have opted to forego a doctor's visit because of the cost of deductibles, including (in that same NYT article) a woman who won't get an MRI to see if her cancer has come back because of the cost. As deductibles rise, people with chronic conditions (like, say, asthma that requires 8 different daily medications to allow one to breathe) tend to seek care less.

Health insurance companies have seen their profits soar as their business changes. Over the past few years, "Administrative Service Contracts" have been a growth area for insurance companies: under these contracts, the companies negotiate and manage care, but pay no money out of pocket: all costs come from the employer. In some cases, this has doubled the actual out-of-pocket cost when a person goes through "insurance" (ASCs are not "insurance" as people think of it, but more of a buying club) rather than just paying out of pocket.

Insurance companies are increasingly showing higher profits under Obamacare. United Health Group, the country's largest insurer, saw its stock price rise 375% since the day Obamacare became law. (Source: The Center For Public Integrity.) Many of these profits are obtained at the expense of small businesses; that same article said small business employers are dropping health care plans (forcing people to buy them through the health care exchanges) because the insurance plans are increasingly unaffordable for employers.

Health care, in that sense, is an indirect tax: providing it through your employer (it is the only form of insurance we routinely get through our jobs rather than on the open market) is an indirect tax: forcing your boss to pay $2,000 a month for you  means your boss can't pay you $2,000 a month directly, and your insurance options, such as they are, are limited by your boss' payroll rather than your own financial or medical needs.

As insurance becomes more common, health care charges continue to increase. Health insurance is provided for a market unlike any other. When you buy homeowners' insurance, the insurance company looks at the cost of your home, the age of your home, and special factors to determine how risky you are (one insurance company would not insure us because we have large trees in our yard, which poses a risk of a tree falling onto your house.)  When you buy car insurance, they look at your car and your age and your driving record and determine how risky you are. When you buy legal malpractice or other errors & omissions insurance, the time that you have been practicing, past claims, size of your firm, and area and nature of practice determine your premiums, based on how risky you are.

When you buy health insurance, you don't even get a physical: when you joined your company, nobody asked you much about your health risks to determine what your premium would be.

When you make a claim on auto or home or legal insurance, you can help choose your provider: I have a mechanic who handles repairs on my car, and a lawyer who defends our firm against claims.  When you have a health care emergency, you don't choose your provider. Most people don't have much say in their provider, period.

Nothing about health insurance, or the health care 'marketplace', operates in any manner like any other industry where we can assert that there is relatively free and open choice. Individuals have far less information about health care costs and benefits, and far fewer choices about their options, than in any other product or service.  Options are determined almost exclusively by random chance, location, and your family history.

We have single-payer education: the government provides education, and where you go to school depends largely on where you live.  We have single-payer delivery services (the US Post Office).  The prices you pay are dependent solely on how much you want to use, and are heavily subsidized.  We have single-payer highway systems.

We have the government control or mandate those things when they are (a) very important to the public good -- education and package and letter delivery and transportation -- and (b) not easily priced via the open market.  In other words, when everyone generally needs something and it's hard to have it provided privately at a reasonable cost, the government provides a public option and private companies are free to provide alternate versions.

The existence of public schools has not in any way hampered the growth of private schools. The existence of a post office has not in any way hampered the growth of delivery services and the Internet.

Until we have a public option single-payer health care system, people will inevitably become poorer and less healthy, and receive worse care, than they would otherwise. Providing a public option would not drive private care out of existence, but it might provide better care for people who are slowly being squeezed to death by higher costs of health care. Only we will not provide a public option, ever, because our health care system was broken permanently by Obamacare, and our political system no longer works.  Possibly when people start dying in the streets again, or the next financial crisis hits by 2017, we will get the revolution -- it can be peaceful -- that we need.

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.