A Good Man. McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
The Sisters Brothers. House of Anansi Press
Ah yes, I knew the Western well, before and after its deconstruction. When the door shuts on a lonely John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, it might as well have been the starting pistol for a wholesale looting of the genre, if it had not already begun two years earlier with Joan Crawford sporting six-guns in Johnny Guitar.
That is not to say that fine Westerns did not emerge from the funhouse. Both Sergio Leone and his student, Clint Eastwood, created masterpieces with compelling admixtures of genre fealty and creative audacity. Patrice Leconte, that rather unsung French director, managed to pull off the best Western in the last twenty years with Man on the Train (2002) by disguising the film as an existential crime drama.
But if the more recent spate of Westerns is to be believed, quality is not the name of the game. Winking is. The Coen Brothers with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men epitomize this strategy. The viewer is always safe, no matter how much blood is spilled, because the Coens make sure your disbelief is never fully suspended and the boys pat you on the back in the bargain.
Thus, to read The Sisters Brothers in hopes of enjoying a straight Western would be a fool’s errand. The story begins with the two brothers downing shots in the Pig-King, a saloon in Oregon City, Oregon. Charlie is a cold-blooded hothead; Eli, the garrulous narrator, is soft and dreamy. The year is 1858. The boys work as hired killers for the Commodore, a nasty loan shark/ venture capitalist who uses them to dispatch deadbeats and scammers. They are about to embark for San Francisco to finish off a man named Warm who has developed a chemical process for discerning the gold dust in a miner’s pan of dirt.
The journey begins well enough in the first twenty pages but then never finds its way out of second gear. We meet a variety of characters, all trotted out from the Absurdist Western stable—a mad dentist, a swindling mayor and his gang of savage trappers, a little girl who poisons a three legged-dog. There’s even a tip of the hat to Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law—a character dispatches a baddie with the lucky throw of a paperweight. At times, I wondered if deWitt was trying too hard to grasp McCarthy’s better work; at others, I wondered if he wasn’t trying hard enough to deliver a passable Blazing Saddles laugh. The book never masters the hare-brained game it wants to play and win—drawing the reader into a potentially serious work and then exploding that pretense with a groaning pastiche or a tiresome patch of chatty albeit clumsy dialogue that lets both the writer and the reader off the hook and in on the joke. It’s the same formula that wins Quentin Tarantino rave reviews from film dweebs and hipsters the world over but leaves no lasting impression or legacy. No doubt Tarantino would be delighted to direct when they inevitably turn this thing into an equally fun but forgettable movie.
Guy Vanderhaeghe has no problem playing it straight. The Good Man is the third and final installment in his award-winning trilogy of Canadian Westerns. That in itself is quite a feat because CanLit, by nature, is not a hotbed of rawhide and gunsmoke. Vanderhaeghe long ago mastered the genre of historical fiction, using real-life personages and facts to revisit old territories with new perspectives. Yet The Good Man is a strange bird, admirable on its perch but lumbering in flight. Our hero, Wesley Case, is a rather hapless dude, estranged from a prim WASP mother who is off her rocker and a tycoon father who’s too preoccupied with his Québécois paramour to be charitable to his son. Young Case lands a gig with the RCMP but turns down a plum commis- sion, only to be assigned nasty scout work along the Canada-US border mere months after Custer’s disastrous Last Stand. In the end, Case meets Sitting Bull and we see two men from different planets forced to deal with a common alien force, the Americans and their strange and terrible ways.
My baseline, sad to say, for historical fiction is George Fraser MacDonald and the indelible Flashman. Forgive me, then, if at certain times in this book I wished Vanderhaeghe’s characters exuded more shady and libidinal tendencies. More than once, I found myself yelling, “Shuck her down, shuck her down!” at a character mired in a lugubrious session of pitching woo.
Still, this is a big book from a national treasure. Vanderhaeghe is an author who believes that his readers can find real value in the dime store where a good story well told is, given today’s marketplace, a priceless commodity.