the sisters brothers // the crossing
There is something fascinating in the western. Something of America; the southern states, of Mexico and the legend of the cowboy, of the caballero; something about the spirit of the horse and the bleak, rugged landscape has a grand power to capture the imagination. There must be something in the western philosophy that appeals and transcends the genre because you find the same themes, the same spirit, in other kinds of books. The classic American road novel, for instance; in Jack Kerouac and his tales of outsiders and sub-cultures, whole groups of people with histories and lives somewhere just outside of common law; there’s something of the western in these, too. It’s in accordance to this fascination that I have read and now present two classic but contemporary westerns: Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers and Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing; second in his Border trilogy, and sequel to the perhaps better known All the Pretty Horses.
These are two tales of two brothers, and two novels each in their way true to the spirit of the western; but different works. As the synopsis and the comments by reviewers suggest, The Sisters Brothers is a wry take on the traditional western road and revenge tale. Two brothers, killers by trade, set out across America in search of their mark. The novel, narrated by Eli Sisters, one half of the murderous brothers of the title, follows their adventures and Eli’s ponderous, changing attitude to a profession he has not entirely happily found himself in. There are many things that make this novel an enjoyable read; it is frequently funny, and frequently also sad. There are some excellent pieces of violence, well described and played out like a scene from any classic western. The narrative is consistent and the writing of a good quality, and the climax in particular is unexpectedly moving and exciting.
The ending of the novel really is fine; however it’s a shame that I really do have to use the word ‘unexpectedly’, as in ‘unexpectedly moving’. But I do, because ultimately I found that I had very few feelings towards the rest of the novel. Perhaps because of the noir, knowing style in which the novel is written, I found The Sisters Brothers to be a novel out of step with itself. It is narrated from the first person, but Eli’s thoughts and observations do not feel authentically his; I felt the machinery of the genre and the author’s intent obtruding into the narrative from the first page, and as a result was never fully convinced. The episodes, adventures and people that the brothers encounter are not quite cursorily or lazily described, yet they feel somehow a little predictable, a little caricatured, but it’s not quite sharp and smart and witty enough to achieve the noir, or to live up to its reviews. Eli simply doesn’t present a strong enough voice to convince you that he is a real character; it was almost always the voice of the author’s own intentions that I heard in the narrative. This may be one of the dangers inherent in using the first person narrative. If the voice of the narrator is not convincing, nothing will be, and then it is impossible for the story to come fully alive. Such a story can still be an enjoyable affair, which The Sisters Brothers certainly is, and there are some brilliant episodes, the ending in particular, where the sheer pace and drama of the unfolding action carried me away, and then for the first time I felt really engaged.
-Then Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, which tells the story of sixteen year-old Billy Parham who one day, seemingly on the spur of the moment, is moved not only to spare the vicious wolf he has caught in a trap, but then to return it himself to the mountains of Mexico, from where it must have come. This whole episode makes up perhaps a third or a quarter of the novel, while the remainder more or less sees Billy and his younger brother Boyd returning to Mexico to reclaim some stolen horses. Very much road and revenge, indeed. Despite a degree of similarity in plot, however, The Crossing is quite a different story to The Sisters Brothers. With ferociously accomplished prose, McCarthy achieves with this novel that wonderfully rare thing of taking his reader right into the heart of the protagonist and to the settings he evokes, as I really wish de Witt had done. In this case I was hopelessly engaged from the beginning; The Crossing retains the romance and the legendary, fabulous quality of the genre without alienating the reader by making her feel too aware of the machinery. If The Sisters Brothers was light and ultimately unconvincing, The Crossing on the other hand is a serious novel, and more than anything, it is authentic.
It’s also quite a curious novel; atypical, it piqued my interest. Although driven by some kind of a direction and a forward motion, the novel, like its protagonist (inseparable), does not appear to follow any determined plot. Billy bounces from one episode to another, acting and reacting to situations that shape themselves around him beyond his control; the direction of the novel wends and winds unpredictably. The conflict between the disorder and chaos of a life in the present tense, and the order imposed retrospectively and prospectively in the telling of a life is met masterfully by McCarthy in this novel. The brothers have runs of good and bad fortune as I’ve already mentioned; the brothers gain everything and then lose it again. People die unexpectedly and others are equally unexpectedly allowed to survive. It is not a predictable novel. The novel repeats itself in motifs which spin out and interconnect quite naturally because McCarthy allows the reader to make the connections herself. While never quite understanding or inhabiting the reticent protagonist, I felt even so that I beginning to know Billy and to understand his journey, even at the same time as he, in the novel, is learning the same. So you reach a degree of intimacy with Billy in McCarthy’s novel that you never grasp in de Witt’s, and in achieving this subtlety I do rather gape at McCarthy’s technique.
If I’m honest I feel that I cannot praise this novel too much: not only technically accomplished, more importantly it is beautiful, evocative, and moving. Admittedly I always cry at endings, but especially when they are this good. I might mention that the endings of both de Witt’s and McCarthy’s efforts involve horses. Would they be westerns if they didn’t?
In part, McCarthy’s The Border trilogy is a series about men uprooted and without a home in a changing world. The Crossing, however, does not fall into nostalgia. Use of the third person perspective allows the narrative to maintain a certain philosophical, almost cinematic distance. The modern in these novels does not necessarily relate to a specific point in time but is something always encroaching upon the landscape. The modern is the inevitable, change and technology always rising up to replace the older ways of doing things, but it also represents something brittle and transient, while the old – the ancient, mysterious landscape of Mexico, the spirit of the wolf, the horse, and the wisdom shared by the characters Billy meets – is not so much old as timeless; unknowable, and so unconquerable. I’m in no doubt that McCarthy is in full control of this work, so it’s no accident that I had a strange sensation inside every time Billy got into a car, and when, at one point, he has to buy breakfast cereal from a shop to feed his horse. McCarthy commands sorrow; The Crossing is not nostalgic but a contemplation on time, and a work of mourning for something already lost.
I have already remarked that there is something essentially fabulous in the western, which I mean in the most literal sense; i.e. of the fable, and especially of the oral tradition of storytelling. The western genre is a genre of storytelling and the tellers of stories; as in The Crossing, much of the novel is comprised of the stories of other characters Billy meets on the road. In this, individual histories are woven with the fabric of mythology, a certain philosophy which is bound inseparably to the collective history and the story of the landscape itself, and the people who occupy it and tell it. There is a preoccupation with mapping in the novel, or rather the impossibility of accurately mapping out a journey: the journey is a story that can only be told once, and the map is not the journey. The road alone is. This particular story, The Crossing, likewise, is not a map, not something that can easily be made a plot of; it must be read, or since the story tells itself, it must be listened to.
I think it is the philosophy at the heart of it that makes the western a more malleable and dynamic genre than many might suspect. At the heart of this western philosophy, as in all philosophies, is a certain understanding of the world and our position in it. In the western the protagonist is in a certain sense a relic of a time past; a lone caballero in an age of cars and cities. He does not belong to the world as it is, so he sets out alone but for his horse, on a voyage through unknown and precarious land. Perhaps it is the foreignness of the country or the solitude that causes us to think in Waldenesque meditation, to return spiritually to a more primitive and atavistic state where the landscape itself and the texture of the earth attain a kind of pagan divinity, and the animals; the horse and the wolf, are purer and older and wiser than men. In any case I think the western does speak to our more primal instincts, a buried core of understanding (from our collective history?), perhaps; if at least Freud was somewhat right. If not this, then at least the sense of being displaced in or from the world is an idea that resonates, and appears a theme in stories across many genres. Stories concerned with time and the journey, the road; protagonists moving against the time of modernity, at least as I have rather briefly described it, and a story approached rather through the landscape than through a plot; these for me are all essentially stories of the western genre.