It's going to be difficult to find a review, or maybe just to write one, without a slew of comparisons. deWitt's novel is not so much a classic western as a classic revisionist western, and--in tone, wandering plot, outsized eccentrics, casually-brutal violence, and essentially humanist foundations--it's in a league with the great Charles Portis' True Grit
, with David Milch's much-missed series Deadwood
, and the great Altman film McCabe and Mrs. Miller
. While this (dull) repetition of comparisons is bad news for reviews, there's a silver lining: SB
is no weak sister, but fully deserves a place on the mental shelf with those classics.
deWitt dazzled me with the trippy slipperiness of the plotting. While the overarching quest (two hired killers on the trail of a shady gnomish miscreant) is familiar and somewhat generically fore-ordained, Eli and Charlie's travels--and as importantly narrator Eli's thoughts--never walk a straight line. I was never quite sure what would happen, a few miles or pages down the line, and that's saying something about a bleak oater.
Such sideways wandering and wondering also define deWitt's humor--the book brings the funny--but even more surprisingly his humanism. One strain of the revisionist western sticks our faces in the muck, and reveals behind the mythic archetypes of the classic form a relentless ruthless universe emptied of meaning. But the texts I note above run a different path -- God may be dead, life is surely short and often horrific, and people behave brutishly, bullying and devouring and casually childishly destroying. But in Portis, Milch, Altman, deWitt there's also a real delight in human specificity: the (lovely) vulgar ugliness of bodies and desire, the (surprising) opportunities for empathy bubbling up between the least likely people. Here, Eli is never able to fully see past or through his failings, but he's trying. And there's a grim yet generous compassion in deWitt's depiction of how we treat one another.
It's a great read, a very good novel--and I can't wait to read more from deWitt.