It occurred to me while reading The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart that Jesse Bulllington’s debut novel was very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing, and that it was likely to inspire strong reactions either way but would hardly leave anyone indifferent. A brief glance at various online reviews after having finished the book confirmed it – quite a few people (in fact, the majority) loved it, but there was also an uncommonly large number who hated it (and occasionally quite vociferously so), with just a few strays that were lukewarm about it.
While I am quite firmly in the former camp, I can see where people in the latter are coming from, and even understand them to some degree – Bullington obviously has set out to write a novel in the worst taste possible and to offend pretty much every sensibility there is, and he succeeds quite well in that undertaking. His protagonists must be the most unlikeable ones to ever stain the pages of a novel – Manfried and Hegel (! – I really wonder what made Bullington chose that particular name – some bad experience in philosophy lessons at college? or maybe he’s a disciple of Schopenhauer – his world view certainly seems grim enough for that) Grossbart are graverobbers by profession, killers by inclination, and they do not have a single redeeming feature – they commit heinous atrocity upon heinous atrocity with no regard whatsoever for their fellow beings, and really the only thing that might even be vaguely in their favour is that they have people pursuing them who are even more ruthlessly violent than they are (but then, the Grossbarts in a way created those people by their own crimes, so in the final analysis they are responsible for them, too).
And Jesse Bullington does not pull his punches either – he does not gloss over the violence or let the horror fade to black, his descriptions of the countless atrocities committed in the course of the novel are stark and graphic. They are not, however, torture porn – the novel does not wallow in the violence, it always keeps a detached, distanced perspective on things. Which works not always in its favour, as it often comes across as a rather cold affair that shuts the reader out – but I for one can not see how that could have been avoided. Certainly not by having the reader sympathize with any of the characters, because there is nobody here one would want to sympathize with.
Not everything in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is grossness and crudity, though – it is quite often very funny, namely in those moments where the brothers who, utterly amoral redneck hicks that they may be, have a philosophical bend to their minds and are fond of discussing all kinds of obscure and abstruse subjects (and I suppose from this point, it makes perfect sense that one of them is called Hegel), like the question of what parts of a mermaid are edible before one descends from fish dinner into cannibalism. Apart from being very comical, those debates also give the author an excellent chance to show off his erudition, which is considerable (or else very well faked), all of which makes The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart come across as the punk version of an Umberto Eco novel.
The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is a veritable witch’s brew of genres – picaresque novel and Italo Western, historical novel and horror, and I suspect that somewhere deep inside of this tale is an Epic Fantasy tale that is crying (or possibly whimpering) to be let out. It is emphatically not for everyone, but those who do not easily take offense and have a taste for the weird and unusual should find this novel highly enjoyable.