The Sisters Brothers—Patrick DeWitt [2011]

It’s been said that the best gift you can give someone is something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. Taking that into consideration, receiving a Christmas gift in the form of Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, 2011’s The Sisters Brothers, is made all the better. I’m not a huge fan of Westerns—I’ve never even read any from one of my literary idols, Elmore Leonard—and had I seen this on the shelf at my local bookstore I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought, and good grief, would that have been my loss.

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A pair of contract killers during the height of the gold rush, Charlie and Eli Sisters are both brutal and ruthless, yet very different at the same time. Charlie, the elder, is wild and cocksure, while younger Eli is more contemplative and soft—emotionally and physically, thanks to his ample gut—and it’s through his eyes we’re told the story.

The men work for The Commodore, a scrupleless businessman who hires the brothers to travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (if awards were given for character names, I’d bestow one upon DeWitt for this one). The Commodore has a scout in San Francisco, Morris, keeping tabs on Mr. Warm, whom the brothers are to meet upon arriving in town so he can provide them with Hermann’s whereabouts. On the surface it’s a simple plot about a hired hit, but there’s so much more to it than that. At its core, it’s about Eli’s yearning for a simpler, less violent life—maybe settling down with a good woman and becoming a shopkeeper—and the changes he and Charlie go through by the time they get back to Oregon City.

DeWitt does a marvelous job setting the tone for the novel from the outset: Having finished their last job, Eli sits outside on his new horse while Charlie is inside, discussing the pair’s next job with The Commodore. Both the brothers’ horses were burned up during their last assignment, and The Commodore has replaced them with new horses that show just what he thinks of the brothers—suave, dapper Charlie is given a fit, sturdy horse named Nimble, while Eli receives the “portly and low-backed” horse, Tub. While initially not fond of him, Eli comes to find he has a begrudging respect for Tub, sensing that the animal has “a desire to improve himself.” Over the course of the book we discover this applies to our narrator as well.

Comparisons abound for The Sisters Brothers, from the books of Cormac McCarthy to the classic westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to the more off-kilter films from the Coen Brothers, even to legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller. I feel the best description is as a mash up between the brutal violence of McCarthy with the sometimes borderline absurdity of the Coen Brothers’ quirkier pictures. The picaresque nature of the story, as the brothers encounter one memorable, quirky character after another, calls to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou? (itself a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey). It’s a bit of a shame the Coens aren’t involved in the film adaptation slated for release later this year, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Riley as Charlie and Eli.

One absurdly comic scene in the book involves the brothers finding shelter in a small home occupied by an old woman who the brothers are convinced is a witch. When they rise the following morning to find the witch gone and what they believe to be a cursed garment blocking the doorway, Charlie climbs out through a window, resolving to get help and return for his brother, who is too rotund to follow Charlie through said window.

The first half of the book is made up of several such odd encounters, my favorite of which involves a teenage boy who has been abandoned by his father. After remarking that nearly every run in he’d had with people ended with him being hit in the head, Eli sympathizes with the boy, although after ceaseless pleading from the boy to join them on their travels, Eli almost takes the same action toward him:

“I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head. It was a head that invited violence.”

Eli’s narration is strikingly eloquent and formal, a stark contrast to the contemporary novels I’ve spent the majority of my life reading, as well as a contrast to the story’s odd humor and occasional instances of brutal violence. Once Eli and Charlie reach San Francisco to make contact with Morris (and subsequently Warm), the plot shifts from somewhat absurd to slightly surreal, with a finale that’s in turns funny, somber, and touching.

I found reading this book a joy, with nary a misstep throughout. There was one brief passage I found myself flipping through, but I am notoriously impatient. The short chapters made for an easy, addicting read, and a book that I had a hard time putting down. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, so go pick it up and treat yourself to the gift of a good book.

***A final quote from Mr. Warm, one which I found highly relatable:

“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood—weak blood, diluted—and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.”

Buy The Sisters Brothers here.

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Get to the point already!

Taking a break from rewrites today for two reasons: 1) the synapses just aren’t all firing—chalk it up to exhaustion following a busy work week (I’m writing this on my Saturday, which is Sunday for you M-F’ers, even though you’ll be reading it on your Monday, which is my Sunday, got it?), and 2) I don’t want to neglect the blog, so when I got an idea for a post I decided to hurry and write it up.

I haven’t written anything new for quite a while. I’m still trying to get the same batch of 4 short stories published (the oldest of which has been bouncing around for almost a year now), considering final tweaks on novel #1 before finally calling it officially done (I recently had a light bulb moment regarding the final act and may have to rewrite some of the book’s climax), and rewriting novel #2 (#1=Snakebit and #2=Liberating Oz, for those of you keeping score at home). What this means is that I’ve been in an editing frame of mind for quite a while, and will be for at least a couple more months.

On top of that, I just finished Stephen King’s latest novel, Revival, and had a brief discussion on Facebook with my friend and fellow writer (as well as my go-to movie and music expert) Jeff, in which we agreed that Mr. King has an issue with being excessively wordy and needs to keep someone around to tell him when it’s time to cut the crap and get to the point.

How cool is that? Also, if anyone cares, this is an alternate cover, of which there were several, all of them cooler than the official US cover, in my opinion.

How cool is this? This is an animated GIF of an alternate cover, of which there were several, all of them cooler than the official US cover, in my opinion.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of Revival, but it’s by no means a bad book. The first third or so had me riveted as I waited patiently to see how all the backstory would pay off. And the ending was quite good, if you like things dark and twisted like I do. Especially coming from King, it was a satisfying (which in this case means unsettling) ending, and yet I was still a little frustrated when I finished it. Because the rest of it—from about 1/3 of the way through until the last 30 pages or so? Ugh. It was still interesting, at least to me as a musician, but it started to drag on, and on, AND ON, until I started thinking, ‘Good God, when is something going to finally happen?’

A brief word about my job (it ties in, trust me): I’ve completed training and am now a full-fledged Fire and EMS dispatcher, so when calls come in for medical and/or fire-related emergencies, I’m one of the people going out on the radio and telling the units where to go and what’s going on there. It can be stressful (and is, fairly regularly), but it’s actually also a boatload of fun, if you can believe that. But the thing is, among all that chaos I still have to take 911 calls as well and juggle all of it simultaneously. What this has meant is that when I’m on the phone with a caller I have a newfound sense of urgency—I need to get the pertinent information and get off the phone as quick as I can so I’m available on the radio if units need to tell me or ask me something. I feel like a lot of writers could benefit from having a similar sense of urgency in telling their stories.

Elmore Leonard had the advice that aspiring writers have probably read a thousand times, “Try and leave out the parts that readers skip.” I wish more writers would take that advice. Now, I’m not opposed to taking some time to give some backstory, or maybe a lot of attention to detail in certain scenes if it’s called for, but for the most part I like stories that cut to the chase and keep the ball rolling, like that big boulder at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Liberating Oz is written in the first person, and it’s the first extended piece (meaning longer than a short story) I’ve written from that POV. The fist third-to-half of the book is setting up events that unfold in the second half, and for some reason it feels at times like I’m rambling and not staying on task when telling the story. Deep down, I don’t really think I am (I won’t know for sure until I sit down with my reading cap on versus my writing/editing cap), after all the thing’s barely novel-length as it is, but still, I wonder. In my conversation with Jeff about Revival, I said to him, “It would’ve made a killer novella.” I don’t want the same thing said about my own work. I’d rather write a killer novella than a too-long novel that bores people.

Writers out there: do you ever have any issues with feeling like you’re taking too long to get to where you’re going, be it first or third person? How do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow?

Readers out there: what books can you think of that lost you along the way because they just took too long to get to the point? Or, conversely, what books got right to it like a gunshot and had you riveted from start to finish?

Until next time, I’m off to do a little reading, once I decide which of the remaining books I got for Christmas is next. What a nice problem to have.

I’m finally finished (by which I mean I’m really not even close to being finished at all)

A little over a year ago (okay, it was 06/17/13, I got curious and looked it up) I wrote a post proclaiming I’d finished the rough draft of my first novel. I won’t/can’t go back and read it because it will make me cringe too hard, but I remember not feeling the sense of pride or accomplishment I thought I would or should.

There were a couple reasons for that: the story’s word count was simply too low for it to be considered a novel, as it was solidly in novella territory, but I also just didn’t like the way the story turned out. It was a good idea, and one I’m itching to rewrite in the near future, but that first draft was mostly unusable crap.

I mention all that because after writing still another rough draft that was novella length (one that was much better and will take significantly less to make it into a something workable), I finally have a legitimate rough draft of a legitimate novel. And you know what? It feels pretty good.

It’s a rewrite of a novella I wrote maybe a year and a half, two years ago. I was proud of it then, and gave it to a couple people to read. Their opinions were unanimous—what I thought was a cool cliffhanger ending to the story left them coldly unsatisfied. “It stopped right when it was getting good,” one of them said.

So I went on to other things and kept writing, but the story burned in the back of mind constantly (as all unfinished stories do), until finally I had an idea that I thought might work. Then a few months ago I got to it and started writing, which has left me where I am now—with just over 65,000 words of raw mass. A giant hunk of clay, waiting to be formed into a bizarre-looking ashtray. Or, as Mr. Eloquence Chuck Wendig calls first drafts, a big vat of vomit with a bunch of legos in it. So now begins the task of sifting through the vomit and snapping bricks together.

And it’s not like all the short stories I’ve been writing don’t count for anything—on the contrary, I still have a handful I’m trying to get done and at no point will there never be an end to writing them. They’re fun, after all. But there’s something about knowing I wrote an honest-to-god book, you know?

So now the real work begins. Fleshing out characters, fixing clunky dialogue, shrinking plot holes, all that junk. It’s going to be hard, but I’ve already come this far, too late to stop now. The editing (and continued writing on whatever project I pick next) will continue to eat into my blogging time—if you haven’t noticed, I’ve been fairly inactive on here, and that’s likely to continue, at least for a while—but I’ll get into that with my next post.

In the meantime, I need to find some hip boots or some waders or something: I’ve got to go looking for legos in enough vomit to fill a kiddie pool.

A Simple Plan by Scott Smith (1993) — I’ll Try Not to Gush

Since I started reading a lot again a couple of years ago, I’ve read some pretty good books. Even a few really good books. But I hadn’t read one that really floored me, leaving me in awe of what a brilliant piece of work it was. Until now.

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A Simple Plan tells the story of three men in rural Ohio who find a plane with $4.4 million (along with a dead pilot) at a crash site  in a snow-covered nature preserve: there’s Hank, the mild-mannered accountant whose first instinct is to give the money back; Jacob, Hank’s older, alcoholic, loser brother; and Lou, Jacob’s best friend who also just happens to be up to his armpits in debt and is the first one to suggest that they should split the money.

Hank (being the de facto smart one in the group) decides that he will sit on the money for six months while they wait for the snow to melt and the plane to be discovered, then watch the news for reports of the missing money. If, after the six months is up, no one seems to be looking for the loot, they split it up three ways and all become instant millionaires.

See? Simple.

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Needless to say, it doesn’t take long for the shit to hit the fan and their simple plan to go out the window. In my head while I was reading, I wondered what the worst case scenario was—how bad things could possibly get. Everything I imagined as the worst possible outcome had already happened by the halfway mark. That left me engrossed in the book in a way I haven’t been since I was a kid, reading Stephen King books late at night on my bed. At one point near the end, I found myself on a lunch break at work reading while I walked to the restroom. I just could not put this book down.

One thing that bugs me about some books is that they strike me as too “writery.” There’s a term for it; it’s called “purple prose”—when an author is overly descriptive and wordy. Scott Smith is the opposite. Like his other novel, the similarly excellent 2006 horror story The Ruins, his writing is very straight forward in a way that never gets bogged down with unnecessary description. And since A Simple Plan is written in the first person, it really felt like the protagonist was sitting there talking directly to you, telling you the story.

Part of the brilliance of the story is the way things seem to unfold organically, gradually getting worse and worse, and the characters reacting accordingly then rationalizing their actions. Hank—and Hank’s pregnant wife—become masters at rationalizing the things they’ve done. It makes you wonder how far normal people can be pushed under extreme circumstances.

Of course, it should go without saying this book is not for everyone. There is A LOT of violence, sometimes quite graphic, and if that’s not your cup of tea you probably won’t like it. In some ways it reminded me of the films Fargo or Very Bad Things, albeit with a much more serious tone.

For me, though, it was a brilliantly told story with an ending that, while not exactly a ‘twist’ ending, you don’t see coming. Once you read it, however, you wonder if any other ending could fit so perfectly. It’s a gut-wrenching conclusion to a story that might make you second guess if you’d ever be tempted enough to think about keeping found money.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007) : A Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost Story

Ghost stories tend to be hit or miss with me. A lot of times I don’t get into them, but if one manages to get its hooks in me, I’ll usually love it. Joe Hill managed to do the impossible and create one that’s smack dab in the middle of the road.

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Judas Coyne—not his real name—is a semi-retired, world famous rock star, along the lines of Ozzy, with a taste for the macabre. He has a vast collection of items related to the occult, voodoo, and witchcraft, so when Jude, as he’s mostly called, is alerted to an online auction claiming to sell a haunted suit, he buys in instantly, no questions asked. When the suit arrives (in a heart-shaped box, as suits do), it doesn’t take long before Jude starts seeing the ghost of a creepy old man dressed in the suit and swinging a pendulum-shaped razor blade hanging on a chain. From there so begins the journey to find who the old man is, why he’s haunting Jude, and, as things escalate, how to stop him.

The book starts like gangbusters. Sometimes ghost stories—and haunted house stories, for that matter—go for the slow burn, building anticipation until there’s a grand reveal. With HSB, Joe Hill gives us the ghost in the first few pages and we’re off to the races, which I really appreciate. I like books that just kick right off without any mucking around.

The ghost is/was a hypnotist, and has a strong power of suggestion, putting thoughts in people heads in an attempt to influence their actions. There’s some excellent creepy imagery tied to this, in the first half especially, including a scene involving Jude’s girlfriend watching a snuff film with a gun in her mouth that made my skin crawl. Once we hit the midway point, however, the book falters a little.

Jude and his girlfriend, Georgia/Marybeth, head out on a road trip (with his two dogs, who play an important role) from Jude’s home in upstate New York down to Georgia, Florida, and ultimately Louisiana, in an attempt to stop the ghost. There are some pretty decent moments throughout the second half, but nothing that matches the scare and creep factors in the first half.

It was interesting to read a book with fairly contemporary rock ‘n’ roll references—Rancid, Anthrax, and Trent Reznor are all mentioned in the book, among others—but it seemed to me he was trying to hard to work the whole ‘heart-shaped box’ in there. It felt almost like he’d thought of a good title, one that referenced a popular song (by Nirvana, if anyone didn’t know) and fit the rock aspect of the book, then tried to force it into the story whether it worked or not.

Part of me is glad I read this after reading Hill’s superior last novel, NOS4A2. If I’d read HSB when it first came out, knowing—despite the name change—that it was the debut novel from Stephen King’s son, I’m sure I would’ve been a lot harder on it. But reading it now, knowing what the author is capable of, it’s easier to accept HSB for what it is: a really good—but not great—way to spend a few hours creeping yourself out.

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig (2012): Like Reading Chili Cheese Fries

Reading is kind of like eating (just go with me here): Sometimes you want a luxurious, elegant meal by candlelight, complete with fine wine and classical music. Other times you want homestyle meatloaf with mashed potatoes, or chicken fingers, or maybe a big plate of chili cheese fries with an ice cold beer. Mmm…chili cheese fries.

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Okay, now I’m hungry.

Where was I? Right. Mockingbird, Chuck Wendig’s sequel to Blackbird and book #2 in the Miriam Black saga, is pretty close to literary cheese fries, and I mean that as a complement.

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In this installment, we find Miriam trying to live without relying on her “gift” of being able to see how and when someone is going to die by the mere touch of skin on skin. Frustrated and feeling out of step, Miriam quits her job and goes into a brief tailspin until her on again/off again boyfriend Louis tells her he has a way she can make a few hundred dollars easy—if she wants to go back to her old ways.

Despite knowing taking the job may disappoint Louis, Miriam takes the job and goes to an all-girl reform school to meet one of the teachers and tell her how she will meet her demise. What starts as a simple task quickly turns into Miriam’s gift giving her a horrific glimpse of a serial killer at work. From there it’s off to the races as Miriam must find out who the killer is with very little to go on and stop them before they strike again.

And therein lies the beauty of the story and the genius of Wendig. He takes what could’ve easily been a dull retread of the first book and gives us instead an original story that doesn’t use Miriam’s gift as a cheap gimmick. There were times I actually forgot she had said gift, and when it came into play it was timed brilliantly. The people at the STARZ network evidently agree, as they’ve tentatively agreed to create a series based on Miriam’s adventures. If done right, the show could be great fun to watch.

Another thing I really liked, without giving anything away, is that Wendig leads you to an inevitable climax, then the story reaches that climax and seems to resolve itself at the 75% mark. When you still have that much book left and what you thought would be a somewhat predictable ending has already happened, that keeps you guessing and wondering what on earth is going to happen next. Very cool.

Of course, these books come with the requisite ‘not for everybody’ tag: like the first, the book is peppered liberally with creative uses of profanity, and Miriam is a character with a tongue like a razor blade. At times her dialogue borders on unbelievable, but these books are too much fun for me to care. I should also note that Wendig has other books that deal with the supernatural and is putting out a dystopian young adult trilogy, so if the Miriam Black books don’t sound like your cup of tea don’t dismiss other titles of his without giving them a shot.

Regardless of what happens with the TV deal, there’s already another Miriam Black book out, The Cormorant, and Chuck shows no signs of stopping the series anytime soon. I’ll take my time before I read the next one, though. If I read them too close together I’ll have a long wait before a new one comes out, and that’s no fun. In the meantime I’ll just wait until I have another hankerin’ for chili cheese fries.