A Mercy
  • Oct. 13, 2020

    Opening Round

  • Jennifer Egan

    A Visit From the Goon Squad
    The Sisters Brothers

    Patrick deWitt

  • Judged by

    Roxane Gay

The Sisters Brothers

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is one of those great books where the author demonstrates their creative range and does so impressively. Is it a short-story collection? Is it a novel? Who knows? Who cares? What I do know is that each time I read this book, I marvel at the different narrative styles, tones, structures Egan employs. I probably enjoy this book more as a writer than a reader because there is so much to learn about the many different ways a story can be told. And then there is the infamous PowerPoint chapter, “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake,” and it’s not just a gimmick. It tells a story, albeit in a nonlinear and unexpected way. The first time I read “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” I immediately wanted to write a story in a similar fashion. I opened PowerPoint and stared at the screen, my fingers ready to type, but as you might expect, nothing came because I had nothing of substance to say in that moment nor a good reason for applying the slideshow form to a story. There has to be function to any given form and Egan manages to provide that function, and formidably.

Roxane Gay (ToB 2014) is a writer. She splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, for love.

As a whole, this book has everything—the sweeping epic of a story across decades; the speculative fiction of a story set in a near future where things are similar to what we know, but different; families and their complications; men having affairs; women searching for meaning; and, of course, music. A Visit From the Goon Squad is an immensely satisfying read, one I’ve never forgotten and return to regularly, which is a good measure of a book’s success.

When I picked up The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, I had no idea what to expect. I had never heard of the writer or the book, and I was pleased about that because these days, I tend to know too much about a book before I read it, and knowing too much can sometimes diminish the pleasure of reading.

The Sisters Brothers is a Western set in Oregon and California in the mid-1800s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns seeking out one Hermann Kermit Warm because their boss wants the man dead. Their journey to finding Warm is like a road trip novel, but with horses. They encounter all manner of calamity, deal with a problematic horse, negotiate the tensions of siblings who spend too much time together, while trying to find someone who can’t be found.



The narrative voice is utterly unique, highly stylized, reminiscent of HBO’s Deadwood. I loved the adventure of it all, the brothers’ strange relationship, the swashbuckling, the perverse morality and worldview of killers who live by a code. I was utterly entranced. I read the book straight through, simply could not put it down. When it was over, I was sad to leave the world deWitt built. Now, the ending of the novel falters, as if the author did not quite know how to bring such a rollicking story to a close, but that did not lessen my reading enjoyment. Once in a while, you find a book that makes reading an ecstatic, in the truest sense of the word, experience. I luxuriated in each word and sentence and paragraph. I admired the wit, the unvarnished voice, the precision of detail, the way the story felt both meandering and focused. It was almost euphoric, spending time with this book, and I know that sounds ridiculous but it is the only way I can think of to explain how profoundly the pleasure of this book affected me.

Judging literature is such a subjective thing, and when deciding between two excellent novels, it comes down to the reading experience, and the mind-taste a book leaves you with. A Visit From the Goon Squad is absolutely as excellent as the accolades and awards it won suggests, the kind of book produced by a writer at the height of her craft. But The Sisters Brothers was equally excellent in different ways. It was a wholly immersive read, the kind that allowed me to abandon this rather dismal world we are presently living in and spend some time in a far different but in its own way, equally dismal world. I wanted to wrap myself up in the book’s sentences, or swallow the book, page by page, to keep it with me a little longer.

TODAY’S WINNER: The Sisters Brothers

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: This feels like an upset, probably because it is—a Pulitzer-winner going down to a book that was a number-four seed in its Rooster year—but I went back and looked and saw that The Sisters Brothers took down State of Wonder (match), Swamplandia! (match), Lightning Rods (match), and Open City (match). As Judge Gay notes, it is a charmer of a read, a very rewarding reading experience in a visceral way.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is plenty pleasurable as well, but its structure (I’m on Team Book of Short Stories) makes the reader work a little bit as you have to resettle each time you get to a new story (chapter). Once The Sisters Brothers sinks its teeth into you, if you’re ready to go with it, you’re all in for the duration.

One has to wonder if reading in the age of coronavirus plays a role here. I know I treasure a book that can take me away from the clusterfuck more than ever.

Kevin Guilfoile: These books were champions from two of my favorite years of the ToB. I know the competition element isn’t really what the Rooster is about, but there are moments when the matchups provide actual fun. Goon Squad’s loss to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in the semifinals, followed by its Zombie Round victory and eventual vanquishing of Freedom in the championship rematch was kind of a gas. Likewise, The Sisters Brothers surprising run through the (largely better known) competition, culminating in its victory over a book it also had lost to in the semis (Teju Cole’s Open City), was a blast. The Sisters Brothers is just straight-up fun to read, a book that makes you not just a reader but a fan, and you take real pleasure in discovering other people who enjoy it as much as you do.

Field NotesField Notes® Limited Edition for the Fall of 2020 is the “United States of Letterpress,” which features the work of nine independent letterpress shops from across America. This series demonstrates a wide array of craftsmanship, ingenuity, and love for the age-old and tactile process of letterpress printing. Check the the short documentary film too.

I think A Visit From the Goon Squad is a near-masterpiece, but it does affect you more intellectually. Egan brilliantly deconstructs the process of storytelling, and I don’t know any writer who doesn’t marvel at this book. Not to take away anything from deWitt’s considerable skills—what he accomplishes in The Sisters Brothers is not necessarily easier—but his story spends more time knocking around in your brain’s dopamine lab.

John: I’m interested and pleased to note also that Judge Gay does not disproportionately mark down The Sisters Brothers for what she sees as an ending that’s not up to what came previously. It is a consistent cause of mine that when we are disappointed by an ending, but were enjoying the text up to that moment, to remember and honor that previous pleasure. Endings are really hard to stick, but all that stuff before the ending is hard to pull off too, and if it was really good, a less than 10 out of 10 on the landing is OK.

Kevin: I think endings are hard in part because it’s the point where you literally hand the novel off to the reader. After three or four hundred pages of what happens next?, there suddenly is no more next. Finding a satisfying place for the reader to get off the ride is hard, and in many ways the more successful an author is at constructing a rich and believable world, the more difficult it is for the reader to part with it. Nobody complains of being disappointed in the ending of a book they otherwise disliked.

Thinking about this result some more, however: Like you, I wasn’t really surprised by the verdict, but it does seem odd that A Visit From the Goon Squad is out of the competition so early. I would bet many in the prognostication game had it advancing much farther. And because our Zombie format is different for the Super Rooster (novels reaching the semifinals will have to face off against the book they vanquished in the championship during their original appearance), there’s no chance for a Goon Squad revisitation. The Goons are gone, man! That is a little shocking.

Tomorrow it’s Pulitzer versus National Book Award when Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son meets James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Chelsea Leu will wield the judge’s controller as the literary version of the Madden Legends Roster rocks on.

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