The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington makes no pretense of starting happy and good. It’s true to its title in moroseness but entirely withholding about the excessive violence on the brothers part that causes most of the sadness. Had I given the back cover a closer read it probably wouldn’t have surprised me so much but I borrowed this from a friend and for some reason it never occurred to me to read more than the big words in red on the back cover, “We ain’t thieves and we ain’t killers, we’s just good men been done wrong.” Well, I suppose anyone that feels the need to say they’re not a killer can be suspect of being a part of a bad and potentially violent situation. It was lackadaisical reading on my part that was quickly corrected by the contents within the book I’d very much misjudged.
Just so I know that I’ve said this The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart does not mince on violence or, appropriately, grossness. So there, now you know. Aside from that it was so interesting reading this story and knowing, pretty much from the beginning, that I was never going to like the brothers. For about half the book I kept hope alive for some sort of redemptive act or characteristic, but then realized that I’d think less of the story if it gave me what I wanted in that regard and hope, along with belief in human goodness, slowly faded away. An argument could be made that given the time and circumstances the brothers were doing what they had to to survive but this was never argued in the story. In fact their reasoning for most of their actions went to their strong belief that Mary (Jesus’s mom…that Mary) would care for them and save them. All of their actions were for the greater good of their belief and religion. Which was not a ringing endorsement for Mary or religion. It honestly made a lot of their more sickening behavior all the more slimey and cringe inducing.
The goal of the brothers Grossbart was to find a grave that they knew had an abundance of wealth and, as they do, rob it. This often got lost in the action of their journey to the grave. The story started to feel less like one story of their quest and more like a series of smaller stories exemplifying their habits of destruction and survival. Every once in a while one of them would mention the grave they were headed to to buck the other up and keep moving forward, but it was often in passing. This fits with the characters themselves, just in that they are not surviving because they’re so intelligent, in fact a lot of their survival seems to be in spite of a lack of intelligence, so a loss of focus is not surprising. What is surprising is how much their terribleness made me think pretty deeply about people and our tendency towards selfishness as less of a fault and more of a survival skill. This story is set in a time when overt meaness and manipulation was not only expected but used as a way of coping with some of the more awful things that nobody could control. The magic and demons confronted serve to amplify a feeling of loss of control and as the back cover points out there is no foulness to rival the brothers Grossbart, so maybe they knew what they were doing after all.
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