The Lonesome West

Patrick DeWitts The Sisters Brothers and Denis Johnsons Train Dreams are two novels about the West, though they are very different kinds of novels about two very different kinds of Wests.

The Sisters Brothers is a classic picaresque, the tale of two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sister, as they journey from Oregon City to San Francisco in order to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. (The Sisters are professional killers following the orders of the Commodore, a ruthless tycoon whose influence could be found in every corner of the country.) The action takes place in the frontier of the 1850s, right around the time of the Gold Rush, and the novel, like the time period and location, is all frenetic activity.Here is Eli's description of his first glimpse of San Francisco Bay: Men of every race and age rushing, shouting, pushing, fighting; cows were directed this way and that; horse-led wagons carried lumber and bricks up the mud-slick hill, and the sound of hammering and building echoed from the city out to the sea. The syntax stretches to accommodate all of the action: our eyes race from man to cow to horse and back to man again, and our ears can just about hear the young city's cacophonous music. The plot of The Sisters Brothers similarly threatens to run away with things, as one (admittedly enjoyable) set piece follows another in rapid succession: a brief adventure with an abandoned boy and his hapless horse; a night spent enjoying expensive brandy and prostitutes with a newly rich prospector; several encounters with a mysterious weeping man; and emergency surgeries for both man (Eli has a rotten tooth removed and is amazed by a new technologythe tooth brush) and animal (Elis horse has his injured eye ripped out and cauterized with alcohol).While I couldnt help but admire the reckless ebullience of The Sisters Brothers, I found the purity and reserve of Train Dreams much more powerful. Denis Johnsons novelnovella is a better description, as Train Dreams originally ran in the Paris Review in 2002 and barely fills out a hundred pagesis like a crystal: hard, gem-like, and intricately structured. Johnson gives us the life of Robert Grainier, a quiet, simple man who lives, works, and dies in the Idaho woods, sometimes touched by tragedy (his wife and infant daughter die in a fire), sometimes touched by history (one day, he stood on Fourth Street in Troy, Montana, twenty-six miles east of the bridge, and looked at a railway car carrying the strange young hillbilly entertainer Elvis Presley). After the death of his family, Grainier moves back to the burnt-out river valley where his house once stood and rebuilds a simpler, hermit-like life. There, he mourns for his dead family but mainly gets on, saddened but not broken, with his worklogging, leasing some horses and a wagon in order to become a freighter of sorts.Johnsons prose is simple yet lyrical, and its clear beauty often reflects the things it describes, as in this vision of the Rockies: Beyond, he saw the Canadian Rockies still sunlit, snow-peaked, a hundred miles away, as if the earth were in the midst of its creation, the mountains taking their substance out of the clouds right now it seemed clear there were mountains enough for everybody to get his own. Even more striking are the descriptions of Grainiers almost elemental lonesomeness: He very often wept in church. Living up the Moyea with plenty of small chores to distract him, he forgot he was a sad man. When the hymns began, he remembered.Unlike The Sisters Brothers, which proceeds by the linear narrative logic of the romance (and then, and then, and then), Train Dreams jumps back and forth in time, now exploring Grainers grief in the face of his familys death, now describing his encounter with a man whod actually been shot by his own dog. Where with The Sisters Brothers you get the sense that there were limitless adventures from which DeWitt had to chooseI could easily imagine a weekly television show featuring the adventures of Eli and Charliewith Train Dreams you feel that everything that matters about Grainier has been revealed, but that this doesnt dispell the fundamental mystery of his character in the least.Though they are very different novels, one thing that connects The Sisters Brothers and Train Dreams is their loneliness. Despite the shooting and the drinking and the cheating and the lying of The Sisters Brothers, there is a melancholy undercurrent throughout: Eli wants to get out of the killing game and feels, as he puts it, a kind of helplessness, the nagging sense that he is out of sorts with the world he finds himself in. In Train Dreams, Johnson writes about a man (Grainier) and a place (Idaho) marked by solitude, a solitude that is simultaneously saddening and ennobling.On the particular nature of the West, Marilynne Robinson, who herself grew up in Idaho, has this to say:

A man in Alabama asked me how I felt the West was different from the East and the South, and I replied that in the West lonesome is a word with strongly positive connotations I remember kneeling by a creek that spilled and pooled among rocks and fallen trees with the unspeakably tender growth of small trees already sprouting from their backs, and thinking, there is only one thing wrong here, which is my own presence, and that is the slightest imaginable intrusionfeeling that my solitude, my loneliness, made me almost acceptable in so sacred a place.

Though its more obvious in Train Dreams than in The Sisters Brothers, both novels show just how lonesome the West is, and just how beautiful this lonesomeness can be.

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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