It might be overreach to say that the Western is an infinitely adaptable literary form but it has proven to be a remarkably useful framework for cultural and psychological exploration. That there are still new ways to tell a story within its seemingly simple structure is dazzlingly demonstrated in this 2011 novel. Canadian author Patrick DeWitt spins elements of the traditional Western with the knightly quest tale, medieval morality plays, fairy tales, road movies and a contemporary comic sensibility into a fresh, funny, completely compelling story that might have been told around a campfire, in a mead hall, or on a comedy club stage.
The two brothers are characters usually seen only in the background of a standard Western, the hired guns who serve the corrupt boss. DeWitt plucks them from the shadows to make them the leading men of a perverse knightly quest. They are dark knights clad not in armor but in long dusters with the sleeves ripped off. The Commodore(king) sends them on a job(quest) to recover something of “great value”. They have adventures and meet all manner of odd characters. Much is learned and much is lost. They betray their trust for the lure of the alchemist’s dream but perhaps find truer treasure at the end.
Eli, the younger brother, tells the story of the adventure that became their last job. He has tired of their lives as gunmen but feels trapped by his loyalty to Charlie and by the kind of inertia that keeps him in a job he’s good at. Charlie relishes his life and indulges recklessly in every excitement. In one scene of wild dissipation Charlie’s laughter is like the braying of a donkey; Eli is horrified and the reader thinks of Pinocchio and the horror of Pleasure Island.
It’s a long trail and Eli has lots of time to think. His observations and reflections are among the chief pleasures of the story. In the opening pages we find Eli unable to sleep, “thinking about the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.” Later he hears Charlie moaning in his sleep and thinks “We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness”.
He wonders “what would the world be, without money hung around our necks, hung around our very souls?” But he tries to explain his deadly work to a woman, that “You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability”. She is kind and beautiful and gives our knight a token, a long blue scarf wrapped around his chest. In a moment many of us will recognize, he makes resolutions to be kinder, to lose weight, and to find love.
The novel is full of recognizable Western characters and situations but they generally seem a bit off, a bit odd. There’s their names, to start with. The obligatory street shoot-out occurs but, to Eli’s incredulous eyes, it’s conducted under the rules of dueling. Later he and Charlie face several men in their own “duel” and win by trickery. It’s funny and sort of acceptable against the toughs, but it’s then shocking when they kill the young stable boy because he witnessed their trick.
They meet a group of hunters all clad in a ridiculous excess of furs, leathers, pistols, knives, and great floppy hats. How can they look so similar when the dress is so eccentric, Eli wonders. Have we ever listened to a gunman having a fashion moment before? “Surely there was one among them who had been first to outfit himself in such a way. Had this man been pleased when the others imitated him, or annoyed, his individual sense of flair devalued by their emulation?”
They stay a night with a witch in a Hansel and Gretel forest cabin. They meet a dentist who has failed in every occupation you can think of – “ask me!” Eli rides a horse with the unlikely (and unromantic) name of “Tub”. He names “the weeping man” a solitary man walking a horse and crying “they’re all gone without me” who crosses their trail three times with his cry of woe. San Francisco in its Gold Rush fever is explained to them by a lost soul tenderly carrying a chicken under his arm. (Sir Robin of Monty Python and the Holy Grail has a chicken as his emblem.) Everyone seeking gold, as of course the brothers are, becomes a moron. He hopes that “your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience”.
The brothers partner with the men they were sent after. Just at the moment of seeming success, a golden moment outside of time, it all goes terribly fatally wrong. (Why are there nine dead beavers in a row on the beach?) Charlie and Eli limp back to the city, broke and broken. Eli deals with the Commodore, as Charlie had dealt with their Father long ago. They return to their home and Mother hoping to rest and to start over. Eli looks down the hallway from his Mother’s room and sees the front door hung open, a block of pure white light. Unlike Ethan (John Wayne) in The Searchers, he does not stay outside, alone, but the door (and its invitation) stands open. Eli turns for his Mother’s kiss, then goes into his old room and lies down.
“…my brother and I were, for the present at least, removed from all earthly dangers and horror. And might I say what a pleasing conclusion this was for me.”
And what a pleasing conclusion it is for the reader! We’ve covered a lot of ground with these violent men who have almost become our friends. I’m sure I don’t understand everything that’s happened on the journey, but, like Eli, I’m glad of a chance to stop and rest and think. Family relationships, love and friendship, the nature of a good life have faced off against the destructive powers of greed, selfishness, and exploitation of people and land. We’re all trying to live, to figure Life out. Like the eye-patch man facing the beautiful woman with the green scarf. She hides the scarf under one of two cups, moves them around, offers the simple choice. He never wins. Eli, with two good eyes, can’t see it either. We all make the wrong choice time after time, but we are compelled to play the game again and again.
This novel is so dense with character, incident, ideas, and vivid language that I turned back to page one and read it again.
Note: I can also recommend the 2018 film adaptation from Jacques Audiard. Forget the appalling trailer you may have seen. The movie is necessarily simplified but true to the characters and spirit of the novel.