Manic Depressive Gunslingers, Presidential Vampire Slayers, and Emo-Rock Frontiersmen: Refracting History through a 21st Century Lens

When Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter hit the big screen this past summer, some critics hailed it as a surprisingly entertaining, if ridiculous, take on Lincoln, vampire movies, and American history. Roger Ebert gave the film a thumbs up, noting tongue in cheek: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is without a doubt the best film we are ever likely to see on the subject.” Though one should probably not expect James Madison: Zombie Slayer anytime soon. The market for dead president horror films seems, well, a less than promising industry. Other writers, noting the movie occupied a region of summertime mediocrity, applauded the idea but struggled with the end result. “It’s not quite Inception. But it’s not The Expendables 2, either,” wrote Grantland’s Zach Baron.

Yes, the film’s interpretation of the Civil War and slavery are so over the top and wrong that one cannot ignore this historical fallacy. In her review for the Christian Science Monitor Jackie Hogan summarizes this discrepancy best. “At its heart, the film wishes away responsibility for some of America’s most tragic and horrific chapters – the frontier slaughter of Native Americans, the abomination of slavery, the anguished violence of the Civil War,” writes Hogan. “In the alternative reality created by the filmmakers, no one is to blame for these horrors – at least no human is to blame – because vampires actually orchestrated all of these bloody episodes and more.” Hogan, the chair of Bradley University’s Sociology department and an expert on Lincoln, correctly argues that as fantastical as ALVH is, it remains troubling. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter may not have been designed to teach us much about history,” Hogan argues, “but it reveals uncomfortable truths about the present state of our nation – its smack-down politics, its embrace of bellicosity, its impatience with measured argument, and its unwillingness to tackle issues too complex to be solved by a silver bullet.”

Yet reimagining historical figures through a modern lens, often with a level of pop culture tomfoolery and an undercurrent of satire, seems to be increasingly common. Moreover, such productions need not sacrifice history for entertainment. Take Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (BBAJ), now finishing up its run at Studio Theater in Washington D.C. Originating from the famous New York Fringe Festival, the play recasts the Tennessee frontiersman, military leader, and President as an antebellum Emo-rock star who utters profound statements ranging from the libidinous come on “You all look sexy as hell tonight,” at the play’s opening to a teenage half whine when Jackson indicts James Monroe, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun for their “aristocratic pretensions” and lack of connection with the common man. “The Era of Good Feelings, it’s the Era of Bad Feelings,” spouts an excited Emo-Andy. The play inserts pop culture into the core of its message: Monroe, Calhoun, Clay, and Van Buren are introduced sashaying to Madonna’s “Vogue” and the gay pride flag swathed across the capital – effete Washington at its peak. While this D.C. audience saw the absurdity of it all, undoubtedly, similar scenes play out in the fever dreams of segments of America who view Obama as an arugula eating, NPR listening, fifth columnist for homosexual terrorists bent on mating with small woodland creatures.

Effete Washingtonians like John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay

Unlike ALVH, BBAJ works more as an allegory, though as City Paper’s Trey Graham noted, exactly what the allegory says remains muddled. One might argue the play frames itself as a “Tea Party-style take-back-my-country struggle, right down to the righteous wrath about taxes and rage about Eastern elites looking down their noses at the folks beyond the Appalachians,” Graham points out. Then again, maybe it is commenting on Bush era excess and the rise of an outsider politician fanning populist anger over backroom political machinations. Either way, the play views Jackson through modern anxieties and issues, using hipster sensibilities as means to simultaneously humanize and satirize Jackson and our own time.

Sure, while audacious, winking and insightful, BBAJ lacks the ridiculousness of ABVH, but their creators share a broad impulse: take a time worn historical figure and completely rework him or her in ways that mirror modern cultural obsessions (vampires, Emo) and issues (East Coast elites, taxations, states’ rights). Is it synergy, typecasting or fate that enabled Benjamin Walker to star as the tightly wound frontiersman in the original version of BBAJ before assuming the role of America’s greatest president and errr vampire slayer in ABVH?

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that in The Sisters Brothers, novelist Patrick DeWitt creates a strangely modern pre-Civil War western about twin brothers/killers for hire: Charlie and Eli Sisters. Ordered by their boss, the Commodore, to find and kill San Francisco prospector Hermann Kermit Warm and retrieve his “formula” (which turns out to be a chemical means to mine for gold), they set out from 1851 Oregon City on a journey to Northern California.

Though Eli provides the book’s narration and exhibits a sensitivity that eludes Charlie, make no mistake: both men are sociopaths. The Sisters Brothers is not Lonesome Dove. It shares more in common with novels like True Grit (and one surely might argue the Coen brothers’ film adaptation) and Clint Eastwood movies like the inscrutable High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985). However, unlike those films in which Eastwood inhabits characters mysterious and unknown (in both movies his character is referred to as the Stranger, though in Pale Rider he soon becomes The Preacher with his collar up), Charlie and Eli’s notoriety often precedes them. More than once, they announce themselves as a means of very effective intimidation. Hearing the Sisters brothers’ name in the wind inspires downward glances and nervous shuffles of the feet. The mythological nature of these characters flows from different sources. Eastwood’s the Stranger frightens because of what people don’t know about him; they simultaneously project into him their fears, hopes, crimes and deprivations. As New York Times critic Vincent Canby noted in a 1985 review of the movie, ever since his Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s Western protagonists provide little insight into their interior lives. “Mr. Eastwood has continued to refine the identity of his Western hero by eliminating virtually every superfluous gesture,” noted Canby. “He’s a master of minimalism. The camera does not reflect vanity. It discovers the mythical character within.” In contrast, the mythology surrounding the Sisters brothers develops from what is known about the two men: they are talented and ruthless killers who openly trumpet their history when it suits them. If anything, Eastwood’s silent drifters would be the unforeseen end to the hired killers of the The Sisters Brothers. Charlie and Eli could have easily been the victims of Eastwood’s laconic justice and in some ways The Sisters Brothers feels like one of these movies but told from the perspective of the killers the Stranger always bested in these films.

How does the reader come to know the thoughts and beliefs of the Sisters brothers? DeWitt uses Eli to focus on the interiority of the twin killers, illuminating their humanity, pettiness, depth, and ruthlessness all at once. Though not focusing on a famed historical figure, DeWitt inserts modern anxieties into Charlie, the drunken, efficient and remorseless brother and Eli, his sensitive, overweight brutal twin counterpart, much as ALVH and BBAJ but in a more personal manner. The two brothers (though perhaps more true of Eli than Charlie) demonstrate a level of self-awareness not commonly associated with male protagonists in nineteenth century westerns.

Not a hero but not exactly a villain either

By doing so, DeWitt balances the brothers’ collective brutality by giving the reader a window into their insecurities. John Wayne’s characters never espoused any worries about their rotund waist line, but when a potential love interest refuses Eli’s romantic advances – preferring gentlemen of less portly stock – Eli admits to worrying about his figure:

She was not saying it to be cruel but the effects of her words stung me, and after she stole away I stood a long while before her looking glass, studying my profile, the line I cut in this world of men and ladies. (66)

As result, Eli dedicates himself to losing twenty five pounds to draw the attention of his new love, but the task proves more daunting. In a society without the Biggest Loser, Eli encounters confused cooks and waiters:

“Not hungry tonight, sir?”

“I am weak with hunger,” I told him. “But I am looking for something less filling than beer, beef, and buttered spuds.”

The waiter tapped his pencil on his pad. “You want to eat but you don’t want to become full?”

“I want to be unhungry,” I said.

“And what is the difference?”

“I want to eat, only I don’t want to eat such heavy foods, don’t you see?”

He said, “To me the whole point of eating is to get full.”

When the baffled waiter drags the Chef out and Eli explains his desire for lighter fare, the two employees look to one another before the cook asks Eli “Aren’t you hungry?” The dieting gun for hire has not been a very prevalent character in westerns.

Does DeWitt project subcultures onto the West or do we as readers interpret the text through our own contemporary experiences and understandings of society? When the Sisters brothers run into a collection of fur trappers working as muscle for a local strongman known as Mayfield, Eli’s description of the men sounds as like a banker staring inquisitively at some tattooed bohemian.

They struck me as fearless but mindless and their outfits were exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, being so heavily covered in furs and leather and straps and pistols and knives that I wondered how they stood upright to carry their burdens. Their hair was long and stringy and their hats were each matching, but of a kind I had not seen before … How is it, I wondered that they all look so similar to one another then the dress is eccentric? Surely there was on among them who had been first to outfit himself in such a way. Had this man been pleased when the others imitated him or annoyed, his individual sense of flair devalued by their emulation. (119)

In other moments, DeWitt uses Eli to remind us of how different life was in mid-nineteenth century Western America. Eli’s discovery of the tooth brush leads to a sort of dental hygiene date with a female interest: “Once this was finished I elected to show the woman my new toothbrush and powder, which I had in my vest pocket. She became excited by the suggestion for she was a recent convert to this method and she hurried to fetch her equipment that we might brush simultaneously.” (64) If only that counted as a social engagement today. In this instance, his efforts fail to deliver the sexual release he desired, but throughout the novel, the two brothers play out a typical sexual dynamic: Charlie enjoys the company of prostitutes and Eli, though he dabbles with the ladies of the night, seems adolescently romantic about women. Though at times, he simply appears adolescent. “I noticed a sliver of her dress was stuck between her buttocks,” Eli confides. “She removed this with a single dainty tug – a thoughtless automatic action on her part, but I felt a great fortunate to have witnessed it and began whistling a wild snappy tune.” (56) A brief glimpse at the sexual depravity of nineteenth century males denied access to internet porn.

Though DeWitt provides a clear window into Eli and Charlie’s relationship, Eli often uses unrelated subjects as means to broach more profound ideas. Eli’s affection for and tendency to anthropomorphize animals serves as a medium for more pointed discussions and insights into his character. He clearly feels more connection to the various horses he rides in the novel than to any human outside of his brother. At one point, Eli saves his underperforming horse from Bear attack at risk to he and his brother’s spiritual well being. Upon the death of Eli’s troubled horse Tub, the brothers smooth over their differences while Eli expresses more emotion toward the animal than any of the numerous individuals, men and women, that he and his brother beat and/or murder.

Tub’s death proved useful in diffusing Charlie’s upset, concerned as he was for my well-being, offering me encouraging words, a promise to go halves on a new horse … I went along with his comforts, acting solemn and thoughtful, but in truth I was not particularly unhappy about Tub’s passing. Now that he was gone it was as though my sympathy for him too was gone and I was looking forward to my life without him. He was a kindhearted and good animal but he had been a significant burden to me; our lives were not suited as mates. Many months later I became sentimental about him, and this feeling is still with me today, but at the time of his actual demise I experienced merely a lifted weight. (242)

To put this in perspective, when Eli discovers the passing of his bookkeeper love interest, he adopts the fatalist stoicism of typical westerns but perhaps not as expected. In this instance, Eli’s reflection sounds half Sex in the City and half American Psycho: “Looking down at the money on the ground, I began to laugh, though I knew it meant the bookkeeper had died. I thought, it must not have been that I loved the bookkeeper, but that I loved the idea of her loving me, and the idea of not being alone,” Eli recounted. “At any rate, there was nothing in my heart like sorrow, and I peered up at the whore and said to her pitiful face, ‘And so what about that?’” Shared interest in dental hygiene can apparently only carry a relationship so far.

In some ways, the language employed by characters in The Sisters Brothers resembles that of a “dime store” novel. DeWitt establishes a vernacular, notes John Vernon, based on a “stylized abstraction of Western speech after it originated in the South, found a niche in the Civil War and crossed the Mississippi, where it passed through any number of filters: political orations, florid journalism and mouths too full of chaw to say much, to name just a few.” Portis’s True Grit and the HBO series Deadwood, Vernon points out, represent similar formalist strains, though these often derive from Eastern authors “who were taught in school that good writing displays a horror of contractions.” Though True Grit’s main character Mattie Ross would have nothing to do with the sentimentalism or romanticism of Eli Sisters, nor would Rooster Cogburn. Though admittedly, Cogburn would surely knock back a few with an inebriated Charlie.

Vernon found fault with the novel’s first section, finding it full of dead ends and anti-climaxes. For the NYT critic, the surreal reality of Gold Rush San Francisco is where the book cuts its dramatic teeth. Fair enough, but the journey to San Francisco toys with the idea of the western novel at once parody and homage. Though Vernon found this to be problematic, describing the book’s first segment as “desultory,” these events mean something for the characters even if they don’t necessarily impact the direction of the plot. Sure, there are events that seem to serve little purpose other than to provide insight into Charlie and Eli, but in life, not every action a person takes comes back to haunt them, nor does it always lead to success. However, these actions do tell us about the individual and allow the reader to filter the story through this lens.

Like ALVH and BBAJ, The Sisters Brothers takes a time worn genre and its related archetypes and infuses them with modern sensibilities and anxieties via a vernacular squarely rooted in the antebellum West. Whenever we look back at historical epochs or figures, we inevitably insert the problems and issues collectively weighing us down. If it helps us understand peoples and histories better so be it. Though admittedly one worries that adolescents already ignorant about American history will soon expect Abraham Lincoln to make an appearance in a future episode of True Blood, I bet a high school field trip to see Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson might enlighten more than confuse. After all, Jackson tries to dictate his own legacy, but all his attempts to frame his memory to his liking fail. When Jackson fires a bullet into the narrator, the play’s symbolic representation of popular memory, he believes he can tell his own story. Sadly for him, upon the play’s conclusion, his past remains a formidable obstacle that can not simply be put down like an injured horse. “You can’t shoot history in the neck,” advises the play’s narrator, though Jackson tried. Andy Jackson failed to fully finish off history with a bullet and one doubts that even the lawless Sisters brothers could. Still, for all its faults, the novel’s neo-western feel illuminates as much about us now as it does about us then — even as two men who would be considered serial killers in the twenty first century traverse the crag filled Gold Rush American West as dubious celebrities without a vampire in sight.