I ran across this book as part of the Morning News’s Tournament of Books. I really enjoy following their tournament every spring, but since I’m not in the US, March Madness sometimes sneaks up on me. This year I was lucky in that Wil Wheaton, who I follow consistently online, was one of the first-round judges, so I knew exactly when it started. His round was this book against State of Wonder.
He really didn’t like State of Wonder. I can understand why, of course, and he was right that he’s not the target audience for it. He also really, really loved this book. So I thought, “okay, that’s one recommendation right there…..if I run across it, maybe I’ll give it a try.” It ended up winning the Tournament, and then I saw that it had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and then it was on sale at Waterstones. It was inevitable.
It’s a Western, in setting and tone, but like the best books do, it doesn’t limit itself to the themes of its genre. It’s about two brothers, gunslingers, on a job to kill a prospector in California. It’s about the demands of loyalty to family and to employer and to morality. It’s about recognising the social structures of the time and your part in creating or maintaining them. And it’s about the discovery that what you’ve done all your life isn’t what you want to be.
Where it particularly excels is in the actual language. Westerns for decades have had a particular voice – a weird combination of completely simple and completely high-flown. It’s hard to maintain without seeming foolish, but deWitt pulls it off. Eli isn’t the most intelligent or educated man, but he’s not stupid, and he’s well-meaning. He recognises the way the world works, and his part in the badness of it, and does what he can to make amends. He can never do a lot, but he does what he can, and he tries to temper Charlie’s excesses as much as he can.
It’s an incredible journey, not just geographically, but emotionally as Eli finds their way of life more and more untenable, while Charlie continues to find exhilaration in the extremes. Ultimately, they completely change places, with Eli becoming the leader and Charlie sinking into submission.
It’s not a book for everyone (what book is?) but it’s fast, and clear, and intriguing. Read the judges’ analyses on Tournament of Books, and then decide for yourself.