Sisters Brothers in Arms

So, following on from having a book accepted last time out, one of this month’s choices was a book I had been bugging the organiser to pick for months. Thinking about it now I didn’t have the best of reasons for it other than my profound love for the novel – good enough reason you might think, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a decent discussion. Particularly in this case as my choice is almost a series of set-pieces that make up a picaresque tale.

Anyhow, the book was Patrick Dewitt’s The Sisters Brothers. It is one of the few books I’ve read in the last years that I picked up purely on a whim. I loved it on first read and I love it even more now. I was invited to open the discussion on it and fell into vacuous platitudes of greatness about its brilliance but I can’t help it. Its just an utter joy from start to finish. Dewitt’s writing is pared to the bone and almost reads like a film script – every word is punchy, alive, exciting. There are moments of flat-out hilarity that break up the tension as our anti-heroes travel the American West in search of their target, the elusive Kermit Warm. A scene where the brothers rob a dentist of his numbing injection is laugh out loud funny and the book is full of these sharp, hilarious passages.

Coupled with this is a genuine poignancy as the brothers run into troubles. There is a nihilistic thread that runs through both the brothers, particularly Charlie, who is the more violent and comfortable expressing that violence. As the book progresses our narrator Eli tries to come to terms with the constant struggle of being a bounty hunter and wants out; This contrast is expertly drawn by Dewitt, and events conspire to leave Charlie with one arm and spiritually broken – the cockiness all but extinguished, and Eli becoming the leader of the two. This change is woven into their meeting with Warm and the events that follow, which end up with a moving deathbed scene that can’t fail to bring a lump to your throat.

I have to admit that I thought some of the novel’s rather graphic passages of violence would be too much for some, but only one group member commented on it. Most gave it the thumbs up and were pleased with my choice, which was good to hear. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, its a beauty.

Violence was also an integral part of our second choice, and in some ways was all the more gruesome as it is based on historical fact. The story of William Buckley, an early convict who was transported to Australia as a young boy, is one I hadn’t heard of before. But it is utterly fascinating; The book, ‘The Life And Adventures of Wiliam Buckley’, edited by Tim Flannery, tells the story of Buckley, who escaped into the bush shortly after arriving in Sydney, and living with the indigenous population for the next 32 years.

His account is utterly extraordinary, detailing life with various Aboriginal tribes. As I said, the main thread that runs through the narrative is that of killing. There are constant battles between the various tribes, mostly disputes over women who had been promised to a certain man. These battles are horrifically bloody and its a wonder how Buckley survived them. His height (he was 6 foot 8) probably helped, but his white skin was his saviour, as the tribes believed he was a reincarnation of a dead comrade. This belief was also the reason behind some ghastly acts of cannibalism that Buckley witnessed; the tribes believed eating the flesh of a fallen man would absorb his soul into their bodies.

There is more to the book than just blood and guts mind – the descriptions of Aboriginal culture, dancing, weaponry and customs is fascinating. I found the nomadic nature of the tribes amazing too, they were quite happy to move from areas of plentiful food and water for little reason than restlessness. The descriptions of local flora and fauna also must have been of great interest to the botanists among the early settlers.

There is some dispute over how much of Buckley’s story is apocryphal – after he regained touch with the outside world he spoke only in monosyllabic tones and told his tale to only two men. The original manuscript was taken down by a Hobart journalist, so there must be some acceptance that changes and embellishments would have been made to the narrative. That said, I believe the book’s words are in the main authentic, and scholars of Aboriginal culture have found the book highly informative. A tale I’m very glad to have read, which captures a part of Australian history very few will have read about.

Confederacy of Poverty

I’ve never been a huge fan of the picaresque novel. I enjoy their satirical elements and the style of the anti-hero, but the general lack of character development and story that are usually aspects of the picaresque I find hard to get along with. So I approached our first novel of book club, John Kennedy Toole’s The Confederacy of Dunces, with some trepidation.
But it was mostly unfounded as I enjoyed the novel quite a lot. I can see why it took a lot of effort to be published (Toole’s mother spent over a decade contacting publishers after her sons suicide) as the lack of plot make it a hard sell. The main character, Ignatius Reilly, is a tour-de-force of epic proportions. He is at once arrogant, exasperating, self-indulgent, lazy, emotionally challenged, solitary, frustrating and contradictory. But never anything less than compelling. The episodes of the novel are mostly farcical and to some Ignatius’s ridiculous reactions to anything resembling hard work would come across as annoying. The move teeters on this tightrope throughout, but for me Toole goes up to this line but never quite crosses it. I’ve certainly never read anything quite like Dunces and for that I can only recommend it.
Our second choice was something vastly different – George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris in London. Orwell is known as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and this account of his time struggling with poverty in the early 1920s was a fascinating glimpse into his life at the beginning of his career.
The book describes poverty in superb detail, always with compassion and honesty and a great deal of humour too. Orwell’s travails as a plongeur (waiter, basically) in Paris hotels is a chaotic and often very funny look at the poor underbelly of the Parisian working class. The sheer scale of the chaos and hard work of the plongeurs is almost unbelievable. The long hours and back-breaking conditions are soul-destroying and for very meagre pay. The power of Orwell’s writing brings these scenes to life in a compelling way and also have much resonance to conditions in the hospitality industry today. My partner works in hospitality and some of the scenes Orwell describes, whilst at the extreme end of the scale, are still applicable in today’s industry.
His experiences of homelessness in London are exceptionally well drawn. He underwent a constant cycle of walking between hostels, often for up to 20 miles a day, and surviving on little more than bread and margarine for days on end. The descriptions of starvation reminded me very much of another writer who lived on the poverty line for much of his life, Charles Bukowski. Orwell has that matter-of-fact, dry prose that is the antithesis of Bukowski but still a similarity remains. Whilst this section of the book is challenging and finds Orwell at a low ebb he never loses his compassionate outlook or ability to see hope in his situation. Which is something to admire.