Actually, I have no idea who the prize might go to this year, having only read two of the six shortlisted novels so far, but this one certainly was a fun ride. Not a fan of Westerns? I didn’t think I was either until I read this one.
Hired by the powerful Commodore to kill a man by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm in the mid-19th century, brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters embark on a road trip from their home in Oregon City to the California of the Gold Rush frenzy to find their mark. As Eli, who tells us the story from his perspective informs us, there is a lot of bickering and arguing between the brothers from the get-go. There is the matter of their horses to start with; after their last assignment in which their steeds were immolated, Charlie got first pick among two other mounts and chose the aptly named “Nimble”, while Eli, who had loved his previous horse and still has nightmares about the horrible way in which the creature died, got stuck with “Tub”, who is as quick and lithe as his name implies. Though Tub poses a very real threat as an impediment to their next assignment, Charlie won’t hear of replacing him before they’re done with the job, for which he informs his younger brother that he has been chosen as the lead by Commodore and will therefore also earn more money. Eli is already ambivalent about what they do to earn a living—and well he should be, as the sensitive and poetic soul he is—and he can’t help but view his brother with a measure of contempt, quick as Charlie is to anger and given his brutal ways and hard drinking. But for all that, there is no denying the brothers make for a formidable and fearsome team, and as they make their way to California and to H. K. Warm, they find plenty of opportunities to stay on top of their game when it comes to killing, maiming and stealing, as they encounter various individuals along the way. It seems a sure bet that Hermann K. Warm doesn’t stand a chance against this duo, and though the brothers have proved time and again that (almost) nothing can stand in their way, they are completely unprepared for what awaits them when they finally find the man.
What is often a brutal story filled with violence and plenty of grizzly details is handled with skill and sensitivity, and I found myself by turns laughing out loud and sighing sadly, often within the same short paragraph. My only regret is that I didn’t take note of the many quotable sections I came across as I was reading, but scanning quickly through again to find those bits, I realized that the humour was often very much contextual; taken in isolation, sentences that made me chuckle out loud like “I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head” won’t come off right until there’s been some buildup to that moment. Did this novel deserve to be picked for the Booker Prize Shortlist? I couldn’t say because I didn’t read any other contenders. I’m sure glad it was, though I wouldn’t have thought it had any chance of winning; while there is plenty to reflect upon in the story, I wouldn’t define this as a particularly profound novel, if only because it does too much of a darn good job at entertaining us. But I certainly won’t fault it for that. However, an LT reviewer who’s knowledgeable about these things called this year’s selection ‘Booker Prize Lite’, so it might very well stand a good chance. We’ll find out on October 18th in any case. Much recommended, but animal lovers beware that there are some harsh scenes ahead.