Discussion Week 5: "The Fiery Siringo"

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Note: If you’re running behind schedule on your reading, no worries. Feel free to comment on prior posts as you catch up. There’s no reason the conversation can’t continue!

Welcome to Week 5—“The Fiery Siringo”—In which we witness a showdown.

“And so it came down to a farmhouse. As it so often does.”

Siringo and Becket have a complicated relationship.  They are simultaneously archenemies and closely-tied traveling companions.

1) In what other stories is there an antagonist who reminds you of Siringo? A protagonist who reminds you of Becket? Archenemies with similar dynamics?

After exposing Becket’s lack of attention to detail when they encountered the boy (whose father had promised to take him to the ocean) in Ingersoll, Siringo chides, “Well, heavens, Becket! No wonder your medicine’s all dried up.”—p.166

And then in the following paragraph, Becket proceeds to describe in great detail the plants, homes, and people he encounters in the town.

2) What do you think Enger was trying to achieve with the juxtaposition of Siringo’s comment and Becket’s astute observations?

“That’s the failure of most people,” he declared. “They don’t want the bad news. Everything’s got to be good news! So they’ll subscribe to the Proverbs, which feel nice and hopeful, and ignore Ecclesiastes, where old Sol is wiser than ever and has finally figured out what all those instructions of his are actually worth.” Siringo—p.166

“All the same,” I ventured, “since we haven’t a choice but can only make the best of things as given, I would rather live among people who try to uphold the Proverbs.” Becket—P. 177

3)  What do you make of Siringo’s take on Ecclesiastes? Do you think it’s accurate?

4)  How do these two viewpoints set up an important dichotomy between Siringo and Becket? Do you see similarities between the two men?

“Most men are hero and devil. All men.”—p.190

5)   Where do you see both hero and devil in Siringo, Becket, Glendon, and Hood? Can you think of a believable story in which this principle isn’t accurate?

“Twenty people are enough to make a legend.”—p.210

6)  Where in the book does the presence (or absence) of a crowd become relevant? What other factors contribute to making a legend?

Bonus question:

Where did the title “So Brave, Young, and Handsome” come from?

Discussion Introduction
Week 1: “A Thousand a Day”
Week 2: “The Old Desperate”
Week 3: “Jack Waits”
Week 4: “The 101”
Week 5: “The Fiery Siringo”
Week 6: “The Rarotongans”


25 Comments

  1. Mark Geil

    1. I’m trying to decide if Siringo reminds me of a Wild West version of Javert He certainly has the “relentless pursuit of a fugitive” similarity, but I think their motivations are quite different. Javert pursues for the sake of the Law, Siringo for the sake of the pursuit.

    3. Do you ever want to have a conversation with a fictional character? Oh, how I longed to read and discuss Ecclesiastes 12 with Siringo. He’s right about the book, but he’s missed the most important conclusion. I also think he’s right about the desire for good news vs. bad news, especially in the Bible. The worn out Bible of my youth has notes and highlights on all the happy verses, with little attention to lament or sorrow.

  2. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I’ve always thought of Siringo/Glendon as a sort of Javert/Valjean pair. There are plenty ways in which that analogy breaks down, but each pair illustrate the ways in which we are either redeemed by grace or unravelled by the lack of it.

  3. Chris Whitler

    I don’t see hero in Siringo at all. Beckett and Glendon are running for redemption. Hood is running from foolish mistakes. But Siringo is motivated by hurt, revenge and self. I can see selfish pursuit in the others as well but Siringo’s is all consuming. He has believed his own lie and let’s others do the same and it has cost him everything…his wife, his health and any grace he was offered through relationships. He is a bent man.

    And this story is unique to me in that it ties these Monte and Siringo together and makes them walk together awhile…the graceless Siringo and the tentative Beckett. It reminds me of me. It feels like I am a travelling companion tied to the worst version of myself. The me that likes to be on top and better than others and feels righteous in my pursuit of vain glory. And here is the real me, tentative, doubting, confused and on a journey, still believing in hope and friendship and a better day.

    Hopefully, as the story unfolds, one gets wiser and the other fades away.

  4. Matthew Benefiel

    Siringo is an interesting character. He seems wise by the worlds standards and crude enough to survive in the west, but he seems lost in the end. I think his thoughts on Ecclesiastes is that all things are vanity, but mostly those that pursue hope and mercy. His path is one of grit and grime. He agrees with good old Sol only to the point where it meets his fancy, but farther than that he cares not to go, too soft maybe.

    I think Monte and Siringo being travel partners is interesting, both dangerous yet appealing. Monte seems to be both pulled to him but also wanting to go away from him. I agree with Chris, it seems the two almost feel like the two sides we all have, the old and the new, the vanity and the hope. Siringo the embodiment of the old habits that never cease and Monte the man is beginning to grasp what the world truly means and trying to find his footing in hope.

  5. Matthew Benefiel

    Going along the lines of Monte being pulled to Siringo I wonder if Monte sees something in the old man that he sees in himself and maybe by helping Siringo he can help himself. He cares for Siringo for no real reason then even when Glendon told him to keep his distance from Siringo he turns around and gets close (within like three paragraphs it even seems). Monte wants to go home but deep down I don’t think he is ready to face “invisibility” which I really think may be his own perceptions of himself.

  6. Lorilie

    I have really enjoyed reading these discussions. I’d like to take a stab at the bonus question. Doesn’t the title come from the lyrics to The Streets of Laredo–“We all loved that cowboy, so brave, young and handsome. We all loved the cowboy although he done wrong.” It seems to fit on many levels.

  7. Dan R.

    I think the material for question 2 goes along with several other instances in this section where Beckett and Siringo’s characters are compared by comparing them as authors (through their writing styles, their works themselves, etc.). Looking back, this is most strikingly illustrated by two ‘campfire scenes,’ the one in ch. 2 and the one on p. 188-191. In the first we’re introduced to Siringo’s way of writing his own life (which could be said to apply to his memoirs as well as ‘the story he tells himself’). We’re introduced to his interpretation of/through Ecclesiastes, and his propensity to “lie if lying suits”. Siringo talks about his view of Monte’s book (and I’m sure there is much more in the Martin Bligh vs. Charles Siringo relationship then I want to get into here). From this scene, and from his “proposition” on p. 158 (“men are defined by the words they use”), it appears that Charles Siringo feels it his duty to paint his own world, to tell his own story, so as to give himself as much advantage as possible. In some (or many) cases, this involves simply spinning the best sounding yarn he can come up with. And to be honest, it’s worked out pretty well for him so far in the task of creating his legend.

    It’s not until we get behind the scenes that we see the less appealing aspects come to light. Around another campfire, on p. 189, he speaks without the “poised recitation” used when recounting his memoire. He speaks of the devil and the hero, of his own quite bizarre upbringing, and of his failed relationship with His wife. I think Monte might have asked a key question of Siringo here when he asks if he still believes his name, his history, will “carry beyond his own time;” what he thinks the fate of this life of his will be.

    It’s sad to see how little his attitude changes. On p. 220 he still denies the facts about his injury at the hands of Darlys in favor of his own, more heroic, version of the shoot out. He simply refuses to acknowledge the betrayal of the one person he’s claimed really loved him, and continues telling things “the way they should’ve happened.” I think Siringo’s answer to Monte’s question might not have come until his final line in this section: “I will outlast.”

    I also want to say that some features of the end of Charles Siringo reminded me of Dante’s “Inferno.” He asks several times about his face, as if it’s his primary concern that he look good in all circumstances. In the end it’s this that betrays him, and he even stops being able to speak, and is left with just one eye to express his emotions. I’d also really like some more discussion on Monte’s narration on p. 222 about “endings…”

  8. Pete T

    I’m so glad we’re discussing Siringo’s similarities to Javert! It’s a great comparison. I love a villain who is on the right side of the law, but has somehow twisted what is good.

    But what I’ve realized as I’ve read is that’s not quite Siringo, for he delights in evil:
    He says, “Honor is vanity” (p. 163).
    He loves Ecclesiastes because all is meaningless (p. 176).
    He derives joy from a burnt town (p. 178).
    He takes pride in belittling others (p. 215)
    And of course, his twisted definition of love (p. 219).
    I think the comparison is still good, for the reasons PETE PETERSON mentioned (unraveled by a lack of grace), but unlike Javert, Siringo is not compelled by law. I’m still trying to figure out what he is compelled by. He says it’s attrition (p. 186), but I’m not sure what that means yet.

    I hadn’t been paying as close attention to the juxtaposition between Siringo and Monte, but I appreciated reading what you all thought.
    (CHRIS WHITLER, I love what you wrote about feeling like you are traveling with the worst versions of yourself. So great.)

    As I’ve been reading, I’ve been considering the juxtaposition between Siringo and Glendon. Enger has given Monte two different traveling companions, both of which have unique talents. The first, Glendon, is gifted at thievery, but who in old age is gracious and compassionate. Glendon is contrasted with the second, Siringo, who is gifted at trapping people (p. 159) and pursuit (p. 190), who in his old age is bitter, angry, and a liar.

    The gift that separates Glendon and Siringo is that of betrayal. It’s a virtue for Siringo. I’m wondering what the contrasted virtue is for Glendon. Perhaps the forgiveness that he seeks?

    Thanks friends! It’s wonderful to read your thoughts!

  9. Julie Silander

    Do you think it’s fair to sum up the difference between Siringo and Glendon as one of appearance vs. substance?

    Maybe Glendon is somewhere in the middle.

  10. Pete T

    JULIE,

    Appearance vs. substance is a pretty cool distinction. Someone with substance has done some interior work. They have been shaped internally by being honest enough with themselves. So yeah, I like that for Glendon.

    And I like “appearance” in thinking about Siringo because he’s always asking about his face. It’s prefect really. … Though his character does seem to have depth beyond “appearance.”

    And Monte … personally, I’m having a hard time placing Monte. Not that I don’t like his character, because I find his spinelessness really intriguing. I just don’t know how to place him on the scale.

  11. Sofia

    Very interesting dicussion about Siringo and Glendon! I’ve enjoyed seeing the Javert/Valjean similarities and dissimilarities teased out. Julie brings up a good point about the characters. I think that Siringo is definitely best characterized by appearance. It’s not that he isn’t a tough, even brave person (calmly loading his rifle while Hood Roberts fired), but his concern is primarily for himself–how he is seen by others. This is clear in the way he creates and perpetuates his own legend (as noted already). As Dan pointed out, this aspect is especially brought to the forefront by Siringo’s concern for his face.

    As much as I try to concentrate on the other questions, I find myself unable to get past Hood Roberts. Why is he in this story? Who is he, really? The man that he is at the 101 and after seems so different from the bright-eyed boy mechanic. His ability to ride a horse, to evade Siringo, and to shoot as he did make me wonder what he meant in an earlier conversation when he told Glendon and Monte that Hood Roberts was an alias. And yet he didn’t know that he’d been sold blanks, which seemed to indicate a lack of experience belied by the rest of his actions. I’m not sure what to think of who Hood Roberts was. I’m not sure why the thought that this is the last we’ll hear about Hood Roberts bothers me, but it does. Somehow it feels like there is something missing in Monte’s (and therefore our) understanding of him. Anyone else share this feeling, or am I getting too worked up about a secondary character?

  12. Sarah Rees

    Reading this section reminded me a lot of reading book four of The Lord of the Rings (the last half of The Two Towers). Siringo was like Gollum (you can’t get rid of him and you can’t let him go) and “has some part to play before the end.” This particular section was painful like that—feeling so sorry for Monte for being so nice and for being taken advantage of and being so outraged at Siringo that you keep on wishing someone would tie him up and leave him out in the desert. And yet the old villain has something to teach.

  13. Dan R.

    Sofia, if it helps, your comment reminded me of all the times Monte says that Hood reminds him of his Redstart. I definitely agree that we never really get to know Hood Roberts like it feels we ought to. I actually thought that the comment about his name being an alias might have just been a fib to fit in (on his part), which really indicated that his character was full of potential (at that point) and that he hadn’t taken on his final identity yet. We see that potential being used for good AND bad actions, but I guess to me it serves to show that even in those least-developed characters, not to mention the seemingly good ones, there exists that whole spectrum of capability. Of course, that’s part of what I see in Monte as well, so maybe I’m just letting that flow over into my reading of Hood.

    P.S. I really want to know what became of Alazon. I was thinking that she is actually one of the “Fiery”-est characters in this section. And that dream sequence at the end…

  14. Darrin Crow

    Thanks so much for starting this book discussion. I came in late, but went and got the book at the library this week. What a book! I just finished and my wife is reading it now. Right from the opening paragraph I was drawn in, and yet the writing seems almost effortless.

    I’ll take a stab at question 2. I think both men are observant, but of totally different things and of the the wrong things. Siringo sees the faults, weaknesses and ways to trap everyone. Beckett sees all the authory details without seeing the insights that would help him know what to do.

    And Mark Geil, your comment on the highlighted happy verses in the Bible of your youth was great. It wasn’t until I was 40 and had suffered a little that I started to see the picture more fully.

  15. Matthew Benefiel

    I’ve read a number of comments the last couple weeks about Monte being spineless and I’m not really sure it fits. I can see it, but I really think in reality he just insn’t tested and not really suited to the “cowboy life.” Just think about our own lives, we don’t have hard lives and haven’t had to face death or torment, yet when Monte does face it he shows both the lack of understand(he’s green) and also a kind of acceptance of it. He took Siringo’s gun and emptied it knowing full well Siringo would probaly hurt him good for it, yet he did it anyway. He couldn’t bring himself to shoot Siringo, but he submitted to his current position. Monte is an amiable person, but I think it goes deeper, I think amongst all this he is trying to find purpose and is slowly realizing that he had it all along and that he has been equiped with the tools required. He may not be Siringo or Glendon who can fire a gun and do what is needed, but he has a large amount of stubborn grace in him that even he doesn’t understand.

  16. Julie Silander

    Matthew/Sofia – Monte’s not totally spineless, or he wouldn’t have botched Siringo’s capture of Hood. I wonder if Hood’s purpose in the story is to draw the courage out of Monte that he couldn’t muster up on his own behalf.

    The impact of community (for good and for bad) seems to be an important thread woven throughout the story. What do you think?

  17. Pete T

    You’re probably right, MATTHEW BENEFIEL – “spineless” is a bit strong of a word for Monte. He is absolutely green, just as I would be, and he is coping with his fear and inexperience. It comes across to me as cowardice though because of the nature of a western novel. Monte isn’t your typical hero. Even he is sickened by his own inability to stand up against Siringo. And yes, when Monte does actually do something brave, it surprises me.

    I asked a friend who had read SBY&H for a review. He really struggled to finish the book. His biggest complaint was Monte’s cowardice. He was looking for a different kind of hero. However, for me, this cowardice has been one of the most interesting parts of the book. It’s a part that I think I identify with. We like to imagine ourselves like Martin Bligh, but, given the chance to be, we find ourselves to be a much more inexperienced version, even cowardly.

  18. Matthew Benefiel

    Monte makes me think of a Chesterton quote, which I’ll paraphrase: that a good story that stand the test of time resolves around an ordinary person who is put in an extraordinary circumstance vs an extraordinary person going through an ordinary circumstance. I found that line interesting. How often do we want the hero to be Bligh who can handle anything and is the stuff heros are made of. Then we get Monte, who I think we all agree whether it is being a coward or not is not that kind of hero. Is he really a hero?

    Makes me think of Fieval Goes West cartoon where Fieval dreams of being the cowboy who does all the amazing things (and its not like he does nothing) but even though he didn’t perform all the dirty work, he is credited for pulling the right people together, for seeing a problem and following it through and not giving up on his family. When I see Monte I see a man that even though he may not be the hero (and for all we know he may not be) he is a good friend and a good friend finds a way to help out.

    Monte’s growth in the book so far isn’t to become the cowboy I think, it is to become what he needs to be, a good husband, father, and friend.

  19. Laura Peterson

    Just catching up and getting into these comments.

    Pete/Mark, I love the Javert/Valjean comparison. That never occurred to me before, but I do see those similarities.

    Lorilee – The Streets of Laredo! I think you’re right. I always think of the title in connection with Hood Roberts, though, not Monte, which seems a bit odd since Monte is the protagonist.

    Re: Julie’s question about community/crowds – things would have turned out quite differently for Hood if there hadn’t been people around. The community acclaim around his heroics might have boosted his ego a bit and resulted in his fight with Ern, and the fear of community reprisal also led him to flee the accident. Even his death would have been different – maybe there would have been some dignity in it instead of the way he was set on display and his body posed for photographs. The crowd fueled all that. That part makes me sad.

    Prior to this section I had been lumping Siringo together with Andreeson, “the putrid Fed” from “Peace Like a River,” but these chapters put him much more in line with Jape Waltzer in my mind. He’s so fueled by anger….gives me the shivers.

    Re: the devil/hero dichotomy – I was just reminded of the remark from Sirius Black in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” – “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters….we’ve all got both light and dark inside us.” Yep.

    There was a self-deprecating line somewhere in this section about Monte being a writer from Minnesota, that made me wonder yet again about how much of himself Mr. Enger painted into his main character.

  20. Sofia

    Matt & Julie: Thanks for the input on Hood Roberts. Both of you brought up good points about Hood’s potential and how he brought out a level of courage and action on Monte’s part that may otherwise have laid dormant.

    Regarding the devil/hero dichotomy:
    I feel like it’s easiest to see the devil in Siringo: his relish of destruction and pursuit are key. However, to be a “good” devil requires quite a few elements of heroism: his persistence, calm bravery in light of danger, intelligence and instinct. On the other hand, the “devil” in Monte and Glendon is not quite so fiery and resplendently clad the expected red suit and tail. There’s Glendon’s running and Monte’s lack of direction. Their heroism is also of a quieter, close to home kind of heroism of kindness and grace–of love and hope. I guess the question is which is growing more in each: the devil or hero?

    As far as other stories (true or fictional), the only really believable pure hero is Jesus (yes, had to give the Sunday school answer there). Tolkien gets the closest to this with many of his “good” characters, and still gets away with a fairly believable story, but I think it’s because they are contrasted with evil characters, and do encounter situations in which they are tempted. At the same time, the moments that are the most poignant for me are those with characters who have more of the devil/hero dichotomy, such as Boromir’s death scene. I think characters like that best show us who we are, and in redemptive moments, who we are growing to be thanks to Jesus.

  21. Loren Warnemuende

    Such good discussion! Really interesting to read through, and helpful for me to sort out my thoughts some more. I particularly appreciate the insight on Monte, that he isn’t spineless or necessarily a coward, but rather that he is untried. I still think he’s overall passive, ready to wait for events to happen than step out and do things, but that’s shifted a little. And actually, his passivity isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Rather it’s a personality trait (and it’s definitely one I see in myself). How many of us would stand up and fight a man like Siringo? Probably we’d be more likely to just go along with him as Monte did, looking for ways along the way that we might be able to slip off, or hinder things without getting ourselves in much trouble (like when Monte fired off the gun to warn Hood). Anyway, still thinking on this.

    1) I love the connection Mark and Pete made to Javert/Valgean, and also Sarah Reese’s parallel to Gollum. One that came to my mind was Weston and Ransom in C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra. There was the line about Siringo just after he and Monte head off on their journey:

    “Now you are thinking, Just a blasted second here–he was enfeebled! He fell into the car! But I am telling you that now I did glimpse the dark creature squatting behind the flatness of his eyes.”

    Throughout this section Siringo’s body deteriorates, kind of like the possessed body of Weston, but his spirit (or something within him) continues to drive him, taking on extra strength in moments of trial or devastation of those around him. Monte is like the watchful Ransom, continuing on the road with him, trying to pare what is true from what is false, and looking for a way to defeat or escape this creature.

    2) I’ll just touch on this one and wrap up. I think Siringo’s off on both Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. He swipes them with too broad a brush–Ecclesiastes: dark, Proverbs: light. He misses (as someone mentioned earlier) the beautiful, redemptive truths tucked away in Ecclesiastes. He also misses the stark warnings found in Proverbs…

  22. Julie Silander

    Lorilie – Yes! That’s it. For your listening pleasure:

    A bit of trivia – the final line including “So Brave, Young, and Handsome” has been changed (and doesn’t show up) in the Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins versions. For what it’s worth…

  23. Loren Warnemuende

    Thanks for the link to the song, Julie. I love the old photos with it–they really help give a picture of the time period in the book.

  24. Chinwe

    Great questions Julie! They provoke very good conversation. I need to think about these more! 🙂

    – I missed Glendon in this section. I REALLY like Glendon. He has such a wonderful balance of wisdom + straightforwardness(?) + compassion + worldliness, with a little bit of weariness thrown in for good measure. I like how quickly he opened up to Monte and invited his friendship. I like how he invites Monte into his need and asks for his company on his journey. Yep – I like Glendon.

    – I sympathized with Monte so very much, especially around a man like Siringo, who views courage as weakness, and has been changed by the harshness/cruelty of this world. Siringo seems to have the unique gift of being able to find one’s weakness and exploiting it.

    – I had to read the section on Hood’s death a few times – so very sad. Another instance of superb writing from Enger: “He did not seem to struggle against death, nor did he appear surprised. Death arrived easy as the train; Hood just climbed aboard, like the capable traveler he was.” Good (sad) stuff!

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