What is the Corral about?

Well, simply, it is a place to round-up ideas, thoughts, comments and anything else you may like to hear about. My original intention was to have a forum but the time to manage such a gathering is really beyond me at this stage. But via email I can gather up your input and get it into the Corral.

So, would you like to make comment?

What is your favorite western story, either as a book or a movie?

Want to tell us why?

What are you currently reading, watching or listening to (regardless if it is a Western or not)?

What do you want to see in future Western stories (grit or romance, maybe both, gunplay or justice, grim reality or happy endings)?

Anything you would like to see in one of my stories?



March 2011

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January 2012

February 2012














What am I currently reading?

The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton – how I would have loved to have met this author.

I reckon I can tell the difference between an operatic song and a pop song, but if asked to explain what, precisely, in one word, I would stumble. My poor reply, as a non-musician and someone who can’t hold a note in the bathtub, would probably be as silly as to say something along the lines of, ‘style?’

But my ignorance is not just limited to music. If I was asked what is the difference between literary fiction and popular fiction, apart from the obvious response of, ‘is one more popular than the other?’ I would probably once again offer the same lame response – could it be ‘style?’ If I was then forced to explain exactly what that difference in style, between the two, was, then I could only repeat the well-worn view that literature seems to focus on character, while popular fiction seems to be driven by plot. If then ask which do I prefer, character or plot? My request would be, please sir, can I have both?

But can we have our cake and eat it? Can we have plot and character in equal amounts? I would like to think so, however, it seems to be no easy thing to achieve. Yet we know it can be done and when it is, well, that’s what I call a classic – like Moby Dick.

And in my search for the next big fat whale, I was recently alerted to the Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers on the Western Fiction Review website. It is a story set in 1851 and tells of two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, as they travel from the Oregon territories to California to kill a man called Kermit Warm on the orders of the Commodore. Why, is not immediately forthcoming and the Commodore is shrouded in mystery, or at least vagueness, but this is the time of the great gold rush and all will be revealed, so we are told, and eventually it is.

So, it’s a Western, you ask? Well it is certainly Western-inspired by its time and setting, but I doubt if it was ever intended to be a Western by genre, at least not in the commercial or popular fiction sense, as the publisher of this book squarely falls into the literary camp and has a swag of erudite prizes to prove it. The Sisters Brothers is following in these footsteps and was shortlisted in 2011 for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction, for the best full-length English novel. So well done to this Canadian novelist who is still on the right side of 40 and who would seem to be brave beyond regard, as he wrote his first (and previously) published novel from the second person point of view, and that is no mean feat. In fact, it is the equivalent of bungee jumping without the bungee; such are the chances of pulling off such a stunt.

With all this who-har I should have known about The Sisters Brothers, however, this one had completely passed me by, so I appreciated it being bought to my attention by Stephen Myall via his review website, and when he did, I just had to take a look.

Like Steve I found it to be an entertaining read – mostly for the writing, which is detailed, witty, seamless and eloquent to the point where it’s as smooth as silk, or as the author may say, as a ‘touch of velvet.’ And that level of perfection is no easy thing to do, unless of course you are a writer gifted by God. But even F. Scott Fitzgerald had to constantly rewrite The Great Gatsby before he got it to elevate off the page like pale flags on a breeze, twisting up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling . . . Oops, I got carried away and was quoting.

I found the story of the Sisters Brothers have similarities to two American classics in style and tone – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Charles Portis’ True Grit. But it also reads like a treatment for a new series of Deadwood or maybe the next installment of There Will Be Blood, where oil has been replaced by gold. Not a bad pedigree mix, some would say. However, also like Steve I found the plot to be secondary to the characters, and felt that the journey from Oregon City to San Francisco became somewhat contrived in order to meet a cavalcade of players along the way. It reminded me a little like a revolving stage that presents actors to the audience, but only for as long as the stage remains in view. Many acquaintances appeared then disappeared without really driving the story forward, or bringing about a change to the situation or the protagonist.

I did, however, get to know the brother Eli Sisters, as he tells his story directly to the reader via the first person point of view, so like it or not we are taken inside his head. But this is no fun place to be as Eli is a hard man to warm to. While he may be eloquent in thought and word, and benevolent with his money to the women he fancies, he is also angst-ridden over his future, his looks, his weight (at least for a little while) and the fact that he hasn’t got a wife. He is also violent and psychotic, and like his brother, he kills casually and without compunction, which he blames on his brother’s manipulation. But hey, you don’t have to be lovable to hold a reader’s attention, just interesting.

But it’s a long journey to the west coast and I started to tire once I got to know how Eli thinks, which was a pity. If only, I thought, the plot could have moved things along. You know, some of those old-fashioned plot points that catch us by surprise to send the action off in a new and unlikely direction. This, however, is no Toy Story, which is a picture of plot point perfection. Instead, each new character that comes in contact with Eli just allows for more reflection and reinforcement of the fact that he is one hell of a self-pitting son-of-a-bitch. And too much introspection is never healthy, and with this book at over 300 pages, it does become a bit wearing.

The prose and the dialogue do, however, carry the day. In one scene where Eli seeks to sell his horse Tub to a blacksmith, the negotiations are similar to that of Mattie Ross in True Grit as she seeks to sell back to Colonel Stonehill, the Texas ponies her father had purchased before his untimely death. With Eli it is high quality amusing banter, but therein lies the rub. With Mattie it is much, much more as she gets to display her smarts and her determination, to the annoyance of Stonehill, and it is these qualities that we need to see if we are ever going to buy the story that a 14 year old girl can hire a marshal and track down Tom Chaney, her father’s killer.

Like True Grit, The Sisters Brothers is comic in nature, as the title alludes. In fact, I think the comic element has been instrumental to its critical success and acceptance, at least in some scholastic circles. However, for the traditional Western reader it may be a different story.

All fiction comes from the imagination, be it original or borrowed, and so does a lot of non-fiction, especially memoirs, but we’ll put that to one side. Fiction leans on myth and uses the magic that comes from engaging the reader emotionally in a compelling story; but at its core there must still be a universal truth or it will not be believable. That truth is usually presented in the form of recognizable human behavior. We can suspend our belief in almost any type of story or character, even a talking fish from the Great Barrier Reef, or a waste cleaning robot left on earth and looking for love, as long as we recognize those human behavioural traits that fit into an intriguing situation. These peculiarities don’t have to be endearing, but they do have to have a level of consistency for them to make intuitive sense. And while a comedy can exaggerate personalities and provide the opportunity to stretch behavior to the upper limits of believability, without the drama of the situation, it is rarely compelling.

When Mattie Ross tells her story she displays her intellect through her wit, but it never overshadows her mania for justice. She is a young girl with a smart mouth, alone in a tough world where those around her can be devious, corrupt and violent; yet, while all these characters may act unwisely at times they are neither clowns nor fools. To survive, Mattie has to give as good as she gets while on her quest of righteousness, and this gives her substance and makes her intriguing. Eli is different. He is comic and we get to see him amongst other comics and fools, who display exaggerated foolish behavior, and this I believe, will appeal to the reader who wants to laugh at the times, the situation, the caricatures, and finally the genre, much like Deadwood does.  

Now, I don’t think for a moment that it was the author’s intention to be contemptible to the popular Western, but unfortunately for the average Western reader, like me, that may well be how it will be interpreted. Had the story contain a strong and enduring premise, like The Great Gatsby, then it may have been different.

Gatsby, that short but giant of a novel could have been nothing more than a beautifully written story about a bootlegger’s lost love and a hit and run accident; had it not been for its grand premise that runs like a golden thread from start to end – and it is obsession. Jay Gatsby wants to go back and have what was once unobtainable and he is willing to pay any cost to get it, even if Daisy is a flake (but love is blind). And Mattie Ross is of the same cut. She wants nothing short of justice for the death of her father and will stop at nothing to get it. And while both these characters are flawed and not a little delusional, they respond to those unforeseen events with consistency that shows their true nature. We get to see what is at their core, what makes them so interesting, what drives them, often beyond their control. And, importantly, we get to see them grow. They may be immature in thought and deed at the start of the story but not by the end.

Eli, for me, remained immature and that is a great pity, because the skill of this author, with his use of language, places him in the highest echelons of the literary glitterati. Us mortals can only dream of such talent, and with the luxury of such a long novel format in which to tell the story, I would have loved to see Eli put to the test. I wanted events to take such a dramatic turn, as to force him from his path of routine and misguide loyalty to his older brother, that he had to make a choice. I wanted him to be faced with a situation, where if he chose to stay in his current circumstances, it would come at such a cost as to condemn him to fate worse than death.

Now I know many will say, well that’s not how life works, and I accept that, but, hey, this is fiction. This is where we get to be taken by interesting characters to unknown places, so that we may see life from a different perspective. I guess what I’m saying, is that I wanted to see Eli grow up and choose between his old life or what might be, rather than just going along for the ride. Sure he questions his being and his relationship with his brother, but that’s all he does. And showing affection for his one-eyed horse, while still able to engage in gratuitous violence in a blink, shows him to be irrational not complex. I wanted more from this character than just black comedy, and no I wasn’t looking for a happy ending. I didn’t care if he lived happily ever after or not. I wanted to see what he could be, even if in the end he failed to achieve it. I wanted a see all of Eli Sisters, his character and his potential fully developed, and isn’t that what literary fiction is suppose to be all about?



March 2012

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