quinta-feira, 6 de junho de 2013
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
By Patrick DeWitt
328 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins. $24.99
It is 1851 in the Oregon Territory, and Charlie and Eli Sisters have been ordered by the Commodore to go to California and kill a man called Hermann Kermit Warm. They ride their horses, Nimble and Tub, and along the way meet “the weeping man” and a dentist, Reginald Watts. These characters and their names, not completely Dickensian, or even Pynchonian, but not exactly commonplace either, are emblematic of Patrick DeWitt’s novel “The Sisters Brothers” — not always serious, not always funny, sometimes derivative of old westerns, sometimes a parody of them.
The brothers are told that when they kill Mr. Warm they must steal his “formula,” which turns out to be a chemical solution that enables gold seekers to find what they’re looking for without all that digging and sifting. Its effect on those who employ it — the price it exacts upon greed — is the comeuppance dealt out in this picaresque novel.
The ancestor of all road movies and novels, the picaresque in its classic form is narrated by a rogue from the lower stations who, on his journey, rises through the classes as he encounters various typecast characters — blind beggars, impoverished noblemen, lusty women. It’s a satirical genre that sends up not only such social types but the narrator himself, whose education consists of learning to adopt bourgeois hypocrisies. It’s also usually narrated in a gritty vernacular, and the version of 19th-century Western speech in “The Sisters Brothers” is surely gritty, as well as deadpan and often very comic. Eli Sisters tells the story in a loftily formal fashion, doggedly literal, vulgar and polite at turns, squeezing humor out of stating the obvious with flowery melodrama. “Tub!” Eli cries at one point, “I am stuck inside the cabin of the vile gypsy-witch. . . . Tub! Assist me in my time of need!”
This is dime-novel speech, and DeWitt’s version of it raises interesting questions. Did real-life Western vernacular sound like this snippet from George Ruxton’s 1849 travel narrative, “Life in the Far West”: “Do ’ee hyar now, you darned crittur?” Or did it sound like this, from “The Sisters Brothers”: “ ‘Your hat is tattered, also.’ ‘I like my hat.’ ‘You seem to have known each other a long while, judging by the sweat rings.’ My face darkened and I said, ‘It is impolite to speak of other people’s clothing like that.’ ”
The answer is neither. When eye dialect is, thankfully, no longer the fashion, reported speech like that in Ruxton seems magically to vanish from the historical record. And when formal politeness is in fashion (thanks to Charles Portis’s “True Grit”), sometimes, to be sure, combined with numbing expletives (thanks to the HBO series “Deadwood”), its ultimate source is novels written by Eastern authors who were taught in school that good writing displays a horror of contractions. DeWitt’s version of this vernacular is a stylized abstraction of Western speech after it originated in the South, found a niche in the Civil War and crossed the Mississippi, where it passed through any number of filters: political orations, florid journalism and mouths too full of chaw to say much, to name just a few.
DeWitt has chosen a narrative voice so sharp and distinctive, even if limited in its range, that its very narrowing of possibilities opens new doors in the imagination. Here is Eli, about to shoot a man: “My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?”
This, like the novel’s climax, is both striking and strange. It describes a kind of truth that DeWitt is clearly more than capable of investigating. Other passages do likewise — his portrait of San Francisco’s “madness of possibilities” during the gold rush, for example. With its $100 prostitutes, its $30 meals of meat, spuds and ice cream, and its harbor choked with ships whose cargos were never unloaded because the crews ran off to the gold fields, San Francisco is the perfectly surreal centerpiece of “The Sisters Brothers.”
Yet such scenes are too infrequent, especially in the novel’s desultory first half. Picaresques are by nature episodic, but this doesn’t justify a plot with so many anticlimaxes and dead ends. DeWitt seems to be fond of rescuing his characters from dire predicaments by means of convenient expedients, like gunmen falling out of trees, but is this parody or laziness? In addition, the novel’s deadpan dialogue occasionally suffers from slippage, and its portentous declarations can sound, well, portentous. (“Death stalks all of us upon this earth!” Eli shouts when he learns some trappers plan to kill him.) “The Sisters Brothers” could have been an unnerving black comedy, but its sketchiness and the inherent silliness of its McGuffin, the “formula,” finally sap its ability to unsettle us.
John Vernon’s most recent novel is “Lucky Billy.” He teaches in the creative writing program at Binghamton University.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 12:14