The OF Blog: Jesse Bullington, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jesse Bullington, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

"Please." Heinrich's bloodshot eyes shifted wildly between the doorway and his son. "I'm sorry, lads, honest. Let him free, and spare the little ones." The babes screeched all the louder. "In God's name, have mercy!"

"Mercy's a proper virtue," said Hegel, rubbing the wooden image of the Virgin he had retrieved from a cord around Gertie's neck. "Show 'em mercy, brother."

"Sound words indeed," Manfried conceded, setting the boy gently on his heels facing his father.

"Yes," Heinrich gasped, tears eroding the mud on the proud farmer's cheeks, "the girls, please, let them go!"

"They're already on their way," said Manfried, watching smoke curl out of the roof as he slit the boy's throat. If Hegel found this judgment harsh he did not say. Night robbed the blood of its sacramental coloring, black liquid spurting onto Heinrich's face. Brennen pitched forward, confused eyes breaking his father's heart, lips moving soundlessly in the mud.

"Bless Mary," Hegel intoned, kissing the pinched necklace.

"And bless us, too," Manfried finished, taking a bite from the warm tuber.

The babes in the burning house had gone silent when the Grossbarts pulled out of the yard, Hegel atop the horse and Manfried settling into the cart. They had shoved a turnip into Heinrich's mouth, depriving him of even his prayers. Turning onto the path leading south into the mountains, the rain had stopped as the Brothers casually made their escape. (pp. 6-7)

Lately, there has been a trend to glamorize the rogues and thieves of the world. Whether it's via films such as the Ocean's series or through caper novels like Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, the violent perpetrators of theft and bodily harm have been made more palatable for those reading or viewing their stories. Underneath the advertised "grit" for these type of tales is generally found a romanticization of these law-breaking transgressors.

Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart eschews this softening of the rogue's image into something that is acceptable. Instead, his two fictional brother, Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, are just downright murderous, thieving SOBs who are not glamorized at all in this swift-moving 432 page debut novel. Although they might be witty on occasion, passages such as the one quoted above illustrate just how black-hearted and cruel their wit is. Shaft may have been a bad mo'fo, but these two are bad mo'fos without the lovable charm.

Bullington grounds his story in mid-14th century Central Europe. Beginning in 1364, 15 years after the last vestiges of the terrible Black Death plague have struck fear (and death) into the hearts of millions of peasants, the story of the Grossbarts integrates its setting almost seamlessly into the narrative. It is a time that produced the fear and paranoia that a century later led to Kramer and Sprenger's infamous Malleus Maleficarum being produced. Belief in witches and demons, with Satan at their head appearing in various guises, was rampant and as the novel develops, these complex intersections of orthodox Catholic belief and popular superstition inform and enliven many of the Grossbart adventures.

The basic plot of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart could be summed up as being simply two twisted, cold-hearted, murderous brothers who believe they are under the protection of the Virgin Mary that are traveling across Central and Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Black Death both to escape punishment at home and to fight for the Virgin against the demons and witches that stalk the land. When I was about halfway through the novel, I began to realize there were certain superficial parallels to the original The Blues Brothers movie in terms of how the brothers do wrong (much, much more wrong than the Blues Brothers did) in the name of fulfilling their "mission" from God (or Mary, in this case).

But as I said, this is a superficial comparison, one that deals only with the brothers' interpretations of why they are wandering and seeking adventure. Bullington's novel is very different in that the brothers are violent, perhaps psychopathic murderers who would as soon spit in the face of a hurt fellow human being as they would spit in the eye of Satan. But it is this sheer cussedness that makes these two characters so appealing, despite the unromantic portrayals of them.

Bullington's prose is to the point. While he tends to favor third-person omniscient narrative to dialogue, he manages to create a faster-moving narrative that highlights the tension between how the brothers view their "mission" and how others around them see them for being murderous thugs. And yet despite this narrative dissonance, Bullington rarely indulges in writing in a more elevated style to highlight this; he allows the characters to do this without resorting to narrative flashing red signs.

Some readers may find the opening chapters to be hard to read. As befits these characters, there is a lot of swearing and some rather blasphemous (for some) talk occurs, especially about the part of whether or not God might have raped the Virgin to create Jesus and if a wussified Jesus might have been Mary's revenge on God. But if these topics seems to make some squeamish, it should be noted that after the first few chapters, the narrative settles down somewhat into language that, while rough at times, might not be as offensive to some. However, this is a very minor point and I note it only for those who want PG or G language; I found the blasphemous talk to suit the characters nicely and that such talk aided in their character developments.

When I finished the novel last night, I was sad that there were no more pages left to read. I usually don't like caper or anti-hero novels that much, or at least those that bowdlerize the dark aspects of such characters, but The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart grabbed my attention from the first page and I had to keep reading until the final page. This is the best 2009 debut novel that I've read, hands down.

Publication Date: November 16, 2009 (US), Tradeback; November 5, 2009 (UK), Tradeback.

Publisher: Orbit (US, UK)

Disclaimer: I have been familiar with this story ever since Jeff VanderMeer blogged about an unpublished novel that he had read for critiquing purposes back in February 2008. I thought then that the little excerpt provided (before the second Grossbart brother's name was changed) was very promising and I was very eager to read it. So when Bullington offered me a bound galley proof of this novel almost two months ago, I was all over that like white on rice. I originally had intended to read/review it in late October, closer to its November 16 release in the US, but since it was the overwhelming winner in the last poll for books that the readers here wanted read, I went ahead and read it all yesterday. However, I should note that my reactions then and my reactions now are virtually identical.


Anonymous said...

" but since it was the overwhelming winner in the last poll for books that the readers here wanted read"

That was the result of minutes of painstaking refreshment.


Anonymous said...

Also, I was pretty excited about this book beforehand, having read the excerpt on Ecstatic Days- but I think you've just kicked it up a notch.


MatsVS said...

I too read about this on Ecstatic Days, and am suitably excited, no less now. Excellent review, as almost always.

Lsrry said...

Well, whether it was by hook or crook, it convinced me to stop delaying reading/reviewing a book I really wanted to read/review and I guess the results were quite favorable, no? ;)


"almost always"? You're still holding that Conan commentary against me, aren't you? :P

Tracy said...

Great author, great review. Counting the days until November 16!

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