Books: Three Great, Brutal Westerns

After decades of having no special interest in Westerns, I recently read a trio of top-notch books that have given me a fondness for the genre. Here are the books I read, and reasons you might want to read them too.

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The Sisters Brothers

This episodic Western takes place over the course of a single trip between Oregon and California during the Gold Rush. It’s a highly readable tale told in first person by a man named Eli Sisters who, with his brother Charlie, do the dirty work of a wealthy commodore. And by “dirty work,” of course, I mean “murder.”

Eli’s narrative voice is terse and to-the-point, describing their criminal acts in a matter-of-fact way. Despite the duo’s penchant for killing innocent people who happen to get in their way, both brothers come off as likable, even though they rarely see eye to eye. If you want to get into the Western spirit, this book by Patrick deWitt is a fine entry point.

Excerpt:

I asked Charlie if we could stop for the night and he agreed to this, but only if we should find a sheltered place to camp, as it was threatening to rain. He smelled a fire on the air and we traced it to a one room shack, whispy cotton-smoke spinning from its chimney, a low light dancing in the lone window. An old woman wrapped in quilting and rags answered the door. She had long gray hairs quivering from her chin, and her half-opened mouth was lined with jagged, blackened teeth. Charlie, crushing his hat in his hand, spoke of our recent hardships in a stage actor’s dramatic timbre. The woman’s oyster-flesh eyes fell on me and I grew instantly colder. She walked away from the door without a word. I heard the scrape of a chair on the floor. Charlie turned to me and asked, “What do you think?”

the-son

The Son

A book is only long if it feels long when you’re reading it. Although The Son weighs in at nearly 600 pages, the words speed by like fence posts on a Colorado highway. This multigenerational epic covers over a century in the life of a single family, cutting between time and place as the chapters pass.

The characters are raw and real, and you can almost taste the dusty planes in the historical chapters, as the whites carve out a life in Indian territory out West. The weight of history lies heavy in these pages, and you can feel the turn of the centuries as you hopscotch through time. With The Son, Philipp Meyer has written an absolute masterpiece.

Excerpt:

Around midnight I heard our dogs rucking up a chorus. I had not been sleeping well anyway so I got up to check the porthole, worried my mother or sister would see what was sticking up under my nightshirt.

Which I forgot about. There were a dozen men near our fence and more in the shadows near the road and still more in our side yard. I heard a dog yelp and then our smallest, a fyce named Perdida, went running off into the brush. She was hunched like a gut-shot deer.

blood-meridian

Blood Meridian

God, this book is a downer. Cataloging the horrors the whites and Indians visited upon each other as the pioneers expanded their empire westward, Blood Meridian is built on the stuff of nightmares.

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t care if you like these characters or if you enjoy wading through his dense, philosophical prose. The language of this book seems to have been dredged up from the pools of blood spilled in the atrocities it depicts. There’s not a sentimental word to be found here. You can and should experience this book, but only if you have the stamina.

Excerpt:

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

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One thought on “Books: Three Great, Brutal Westerns

  1. Nice post. I love the description of the words in Blood Meridian being dredged up from pools of blood. Awesome. Westerns have long been my favorite movie genre though I don’t read many Westerns. I might pick up The Son one of these days. I’ve heard from other people that it’s so good it’s almost humbling to read it, to see such craftsmanship.

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