The Sisters Brothers

book by Patrick DeWitt

annotation by Lee Stoops

“My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence…”

~ Eli Sisters, from The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (246)

Recently, I admitted to myself that I like gritty western stories.  It was a secret I kept even from myself. Why I avoided, and told myself and others that I didn’t enjoy, western stories I’ll never know. Principal? Stigma? It doesn’t matter; what matters is that I finally came about. Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is a gritty western story, to be sure. For that, I enjoyed it. But it is not just a gritty western story; it’s a study in character development, unique voice, and literary craft, a combination place to which few gritty western stories arrive (a nod to Cormac McCarthy for long ago transcending the genre). deWitt’s a gifted storyteller and a deserving new voice in contemporary literature. Evidenced by the sincerity of his first person narrator, Eli Sisters, deWitt, as author, understands that he is under contract with readers of this genre – a contract to entertain, yes, but more so to move, to create sympathy, to enable emotion and draw on senses. His product is fun, engaging, heart-rending, and instructive. It’s a great read for all of these reasons. Since it would be easy to evaluate the book in regards to deWitt’s craft, I’ll turn this annotation exclusively to his use of a transgressive first person narrator.

Eli Sisters, the narrator, kills other people for a living. The story, taking place in the 1850s, follows Eli and his brother, Charlie, from Oregon City to a gold claim near Sacramento as they hunt Hermann Warm on orders from the influential and mysterious Commodore. That Eli is a hired killer and that the story picks up at the beginning of the Warm hit is established almost immediately, but not before the reader gets a picture of Eli watching (and mourning) his nameless horse burn in a barn fire at the end of the previous job. deWitt gives the reader the image in a way both clever and effective: through Eli’s unique voice – using both his (Eli’s) language and his (again, Eli’s) way of seeing the world. The fact that deWitt begins with this description of Eli being tortured by the image of his great companion suffering is important when considering deWitt’s decision to use this character and voice to tell the entire story. The move establishes for the reader a strange connection with a character worthy of loathing. And, because the connection is fused in the loss of something innocent and lovable, the reader can’t leave Eli’s camp. It’s a sharing of sympathy, sure, but it’s also a sharing of understanding – that Eli is troubled and needs to be cared for. Smart work.

I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it (5-6)?

Eli is, as established early, a transgressive character. Meaning, he operates outside accepted social norms (making a living in crime) while remaining the protagonist. The reader develops a quick understanding about him and can identify some rationale as to why it’s okay that Eli does what he does. The style’s not new, but it’s challenging, and deWitt commits to it, proving to the savvy reader that he (deWitt) didn’t stumble into the storyline ill-prepared. The temptation in writing a transgressive character is to eventually prove the character good, usually by re-directing course or offering some kind of salvation or redemption for the character’s transgressions. deWitt doesn’t cop to that temptation, and if he ever felt tempted, it’s not evident. Throughout the story, Eli dreams about leaving the work and the lifestyle behind, fantasizes about finding love and settling down. He even comes to a point that he blames his brother and claims he’s been manipulated into killing because of his temper and size. And throughout, the reader sneaks further and further into the fold, getting pieces of Eli’s history and seeing that, while he might have a case, his ruminations give the truth of him away: he is not a good guy – he is a bad guy who wants to be good but lacks the real conviction to pull it off. He is human. For deWitt to pull it off, he had to commit fully to keeping Eli in the realm of transgression and then work hard to keep him there, through to the end, without giving Eli any real salvation or change. It takes remarkable skill, and the reader is rewarded with an authentic character experience.

‘We are the opposite of lawmen.’

Her face became pensive. ‘Is this Warm a very bad man?’

‘I don’t know. That is an unclear question. They say he is a thief.’

‘What did he steal?’

‘Whatever people normally steal. Money, probably.’ This lying made me feel ugly, and I search around for something to look at and find distraction in but could not locate anything suitable. ‘Honestly, actually, he probably didn’t steal a penny.’ Her eyes dropped and I laughed a little. I said, ‘It would not surprise me in the least if he was perfectly innocent.’

‘And do you typically go after men you think are innocent?’

‘There is nothing typical about my profession.’ Suddenly I did not want to talk about it any longer. ‘I don’t want to talk about it any longer.’

Ignoring this statement, she asked, ‘Do you enjoy your work?’

‘Each job is different. Some I have seen as singular escapades. Others have been like hell.’ I shrugged. ‘You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability. In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a man’s life entrusted to me.’

‘A man’s death,’ she corrected.

I had not been certain she understood what my position consisted of. I was relieved to know she did – that I did not have to tell her precisely. ‘However you wish to phrase it,’ I said.

‘Haven’t you ever wanted to stop?’

‘I have wanted to,’ I admitted (138-139).

It is perhaps in deWitt’s development of Eli’s interior monologue that he sees the most success from his decision to give the story to a transgressive character. Not because the character manages to understand himself (he doesn’t), but because he manages to convince himself he understands himself. The reader knows better, and there follows a sense of compassion, something more powerful than pity but not to the level of love. And, by the end, the reader may or may not understand that deWitt has peppered Eli’s internal missives with lines that get the reader asking for, or at least considering, the truths in his or her own life. This kind of writing is not exclusive in the employment of transgressive characters, but it works well because the reader is coming at the questions from angles he or she might not routinely explore.

…and as we left the musty basement, heading up the stairs and into the light, I felt two things at once: A gladness at this turn of fortune, but also an emptiness that I did not feel more glad; or rather, a fear that my gladness was forced or false. I thought, Perhaps a man is never meant to be truly happy. Perhaps there is no such a thing in our world, after all (162).

My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal? I began exhaling hotly through my nostrils, where as Charlie was quiet and calm, and he made a gesture that I should also be quiet. He was used to corralling me like this, winding me up and corralling me into battle. Shame, I thought. Shame and blood and degradation (246).

Looking back at the camp I thought, I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one, and neither do I want to be led. I thought: I want to lead only myself (302).

Not all gritty western stories are great stories, and not all are well-written. But again, though deWitt’s got a gritty western story in The Sisters Brothers, he’s also got a lot more. Thanks to his commitment to a strong, transgressive narrator and his careful crafting of human trial, deWitt’s story is literature as literature should be: engaging, emotive, and encouraging of deep questions and suspicious truths. Writers need examples such as this. What better way to provide one than by helping to erode the stereotypes that oppress an entire genre?

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The Sportswriter

book by Richard Ford

annotation by Heather Luby

It is not often that upon finishing a novel that I cannot immediately formulate an opinion.  As a writer, I find that the reading process has been altered for me, so that any opinion I have must be informed both by my enjoyment as a reader and also by my analysis of craft techniques.  For The Sportswriter I have found myself unable to have a firm opinion because the reader/writer dynamic has led me to contradictory places.

Initially, I felt that the main character, Frank Bascombe, was wooden and without depth of feeling.  The grief expressed over the death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage seemed a bit hollow.  Frank was detached and therefore, so was I.  I wore weary of Frank’s inner thoughts, sometimes so random and self-absorbed, that I began to find him tiresome.  I spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile his actions with the grief I thought he should have, given his circumstances.  After finishing the novel I sought out reviews, in order to see if I was missing something.  I discovered a New York Times review of the novel by the author Alice Hoffman.  It was not a favorable review, though not as harsh as Ford perceived it to be.  Hoffman detailed many of my feelings, as a reader, for the book.  “Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis” writes Hoffman.  “Bascombe chooses to ignore tangled, emotionally charged family relationships, fixating instead on non-relationships and nonevents.”

After a few days I decided that my opinion of the book, praised by many, was too neat. I had not challenged myself enough.  Deciding to examine it more in terms of craft, I found a different view of the work was possible.  The prose is lyrical, sometimes a bit too extravagant, but it was also precise.  Ford’s has a definite ability to vividly create the landscape of everyday suburban life.  I sometimes felt like the dialogue didn’t ring true, in terms of phrasing, but I could easily attribute that to the fact that it was written more twenty years ago.

Essentially, by dissecting Ford’s novel in terms of setting, dialogue, character development, etc. I began to rethink my emotional response the book.  I began to ask myself, how much of real grief do people display?  How much do people bury in order to continue living?  Once I thought about this, I began to see Frank Bascombe differently.  So many books want to offer us closure, growth, some epiphany by the characters once they have survived a tragedy.  But is that really honest?  Are we being manipulated by writers to arrive at conclusions that may be satisfying, but are not often possible?

In order to give my readers an honest portrayal of a man suffering from a debilitating sorrow, I can’t protect them from what might be ugly or uncomfortable.  My character’s response to his grief has to be genuine, not a facsimile of societal expectations often portrayed in other creative works.  My character is nothing like Frank Bascombe, but Frank and Richard Ford allowed to write my protagonist free from the cliché of “the grieving character.” I don’t always have to like my main character or his actions in dealing with his loss, but I do have feel that he is being honest to me and my readers.

After digesting this book I had to ask these same questions of my own writing and they forced me to reconsider my own goals.  Is my only goal to satisfy my reader or do I want to expose some elemental truth – is it possible to do both?   In my novel Laws of Motion my protagonist is a man whose wife is the victim of a brutal act of violence.  The Sportswriter gave me permission to think outside my initial expectations of how a man would respond to his grief.

In the end, I can’t say that I loved this book, but I did grow to admire it greatly.  Mostly because I think Ford told us the truth with Frank.  I think his character was much more complex and real than we are used to as readers.  Ford refuses to give the reader the “payoff” and instead forces us to contemplate the ways in which a person must survive the worst sort of pain by continuing to exist, to find pleasure and comfort any way possible, and yet always realizing that “Grief, real grief, is relatively short, though mourning can be long” (p. 374).

The Intruder

book by Peter Blauner

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Reading books outside your given genre can still inform your writing on an elemental scale.  I love reading Peter Blauner because of his grip on various aspects of society and how they tend to slam up against one another in New York City. He has a mastery of character structure and contrasts very different lives with each other before a character inevitably crosses the line—and it is there that things explode and become something new.

Blauner’s work is painstakingly researched and informed deeply in a way that only a lifetime New Yorker can accomplish. This is a great lesson in how writers can take advantage of a lifetime knowledge of a place: and how many aspects of a character’s life, ego and story that place can affect. In The Intruder, there’s a many-layered conversation between an upper West Side transplant from Brooklyn and his contractor, where they talk about the old neighborhood. But they’re not just talking about the old neighborhood: the subtext is Jake saying, “I’m still a guy from the ‘hood, even though I live in this brownstone and you’re technically working for me…” and this the conversation also takes on a sinister undercurrent that the reader can sense, but not totally make out. This delicate social balancing act gets turned on its ear further on in the book—all starting in a conversation about the neighborhood. Blauner reminds us to pay attention: every detail matters.

Blauner explores the guilt of the innocent and the innocence of the guilty in this story of a homeless man who becomes obsessed with a family, stalking them and the patriarch of that family’s response to this threat. What results is a tangle in which he shows us that as separately as we try to live our city-dwelling lives, we are all tied together more closely than we think.

Once the characters start crossing between their social strata, disaster ensues. In close third person and in intimate detail, we meet Jake the well-to-do lawyer, John G the homeless man, and Philip, the Mafioso. We learn their motivations, background and the reasons for their choices. While there is no part of me that liked Philip, Blauner made me feel for the place life put him—his mobster boss uncle who sexually abused him as a child, his ideas of the success he’ll never attain. The deep sympathy he was able to maintain with each character made the impossibility of their situation all the more painful.

Blauner gives us John Gates in careful layers. We open with his reflections on how he ended up homeless in the park being pushed around by punk kids, who soak him in gasoline and are about to set him on fire. It was through Blauner’s interviews with a guy who had started out with a life, a job, a family, and ended up on the streets that he learned that these things happen in increments, not all at once. In order to show us how John G arrived at the low point where we meet him, Blauner points out that we have to see “each thing in light of what happened before.” We have deep sympathy for John G. His daughter has died, his marriage has fallen apart, he was given Haldol to cope, and started using crack along the way. He stayed at a friend’s apartment and one night just didn’t go home. Then he was on the streets. His paperwork has been shuffled around so much that when he goes to seek help at a hospital, where he encounters Jake’s wife, Dana, she can’t treat him until she sends him to a clinic she where she works–but then only if he gets the right paperwork. John G. is tantalizingly close to getting help, to getting some sort of a life back, but he spends the night in a shelter and it’s when he’s raped by a guard that he becomes truly unhinged and starts to stalk Jake’s family. Jake finds himself increasingly squeezed by this guy, incredulous that this city, which he has spent his life getting to the top of, is closing in around him.  Enter Philip the contractor and the web begins to circle in on itself.

The careful structure of the book is what makes it so difficult to put down and it is this structure that can inform any genre of novel writing. We gain intimate knowledge of each character and his motivation and Blauner ratchets up the stakes for each of them in every ensuing chapter, but it’s the cutting back and forth between the upped stakes that creates its own kinetic energy. John G and Jake’s lives become more entwined and just when you think John’s going to get things together, find his way with the aid of Abraham, who lives in the tunnels under Riverside Drive, Philip enters the scene. Philip encourages Jake to cross the tensile borderlines between homeless and property owner–Guy who has made it and disenfranchised. And it’s then that things explode.

Because of my screenwriting background, I enjoy the way in which cutting from one story to another can up the tension, but in the latest novel I’m working on, with three points of view, three people all in each other’s lives, I got so wrapped up in each person’s story I forgot for several drafts how they were affecting each other’s lives directly. Blauner reminds us that when the characters each step off their tracks and infect each other’s lives, stir things up, that the real action begins.  And if you can push characters beyond their limits, dangerously into each other’s lives, that’s where the story gets interesting.