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San Francisco is a good place to kill someone. After burning the town down, they are distracted by its rebuilding.
am 8. Juli 2014
Much has been made, over the last few decades, about the death of the western as a genre. Yet this argument fails to notice a crucial fact: the western was never just a genre. It offers America a heroic vision of its history, rooted in the potential and peril of the westward expansion and the grand design of Manifest Destiny. In this sense, stories relating to the Alamo, the gunfight at the OK Corral or Billy the Kid took on the value of scriptures and were presented in books, plays and, most successfully, films. But now I have to giddy up and ride off to "sing the praises" (as I do for Mary Doria Russell's "Doc") about Patrick deWitt's tale of two hired guns set against the backdrop of the California gold rush, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011. Along the ride, deWitt parallels the trails of James Carlos Blake and Cormac McCarthy, yet he frequently wanders into comic territory to produce a story that's weirdly funny, outright violent and immersed in sadness.
It's 1851, around the time of the Sierra Nevada gold rush, when Eli and Charlie Sisters, two brothers and notoriously pistol-sharp killers hit the trail in the Oregon Territory and ride south to California to go about their business. They've been commissioned by a mysterious racketeer only known as Commodore to kill prospector Herman Kermit Warm for some undefined reason. As professionals they don't want to know, they just pursue their path to turn him into a dead man. The narrator and main character is the younger brother Eli Sisters who relates the ride that soon turns into an odyssey and, like all odysseys, it is full of both strange adventures and revelations. As the brothers are riding along there are brief but realistically outlined chapters of men driven insane by loneliness, there is collection of dirty whorehouses and noisy saloons while the brothers slaughter, drink and sleep their way south.
Charlie the older brother is the leading member of the killing team and always in charge but due to his temper and a fondness for brandy and prostitutes not always in control. Well, the story is not all the way serious, sometimes it's not even an Old Western and most of the time it's a parody or rather falls into the category of road movies as well as the buddy story. They live an ugly life in an ugly world and violence is decribed in the most grisly detail. As Eli follows Charlie, he begins to wonder whether there is a way out of this trap - he doesn't exactly feel guilt for the murders he has perpetrated, but he does feel a sort of mounting fatigue, and some people he meets along the trail show him that there are possibilities for a more agreeable life. So the brothers begin quarreling over Eli's newfound qualms. However, Charlie is not easy to persuade, particularly not on moral grounds. To him the younger brother is second banana since childhood and claims that he wasn't ever meant to be a killer in the first place. Everything has a price in this Western. Finally arriving in San Francisco the brothers have to realize that they are too late to meet finger man Henry Morris, who's supposed to point out their target, Kermit Warm. On top of that the gold price is plummeting. If Eli thought that the assassination business is tough, he learns that panning for gold is not only more tedious but much less rewarding. In San Francisco the plot shifts gears and the gold rush that only existed as a backdrop, now becomes vital, the McGuffin (the "secret formula") is revealed.
Anyone who is expecting a historic description of Oregon and California however, will be disappointed, also deWitt has deliberately avoided showboating his period-specific research. His narrative style is rather flat, which is probably intended to be the hilarious part, yet his voice is sharp and distinctive and the ride through the boomtowns and the detritus of the gold rush highlights Eli's change as compassion is unfolding in him and the effect is stunning. Of course, deWitt is more than capable to investigate history as his lively yet realistic portrait of San Francisco proves.