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The Sisters Brothers is Patrick deWitt’s second novel. It can’t be described without reference to the Western, as there are elements of the Western genre in it, which may put some readers off. However, they would be missing out. It is a beautiful piece of writing, likely to appeal to those who enjoy the work of writers such as Thomas Eidson and others who make use of the Western tradition.
The novel is set in 1851, at the height of the California Gold Rush and is told through the first person narrative of Eli Sisters. Eli and his brother Charlie are professional killers with a nasty reputation and are currently in the pay of a man known only as the Commodore. They have been told to track down a man by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, extract from him some vital information (by any means necessary) and kill him. This outline may strike many readers as unappealing, but what matters is how deWitt goes about it, the power of his characters and the language he uses. He has a flair for describing the countryside around the Oregon trail, painting it as both ugly, inhospitable and beautiful and as we see things through Eli’s eyes, much depends on his state of mind, how inebriated he is and how much he and Eli are getting on each other’s nerves.
His style merges formality with a spiky humour, which is in keeping with the novel and the relationship between the brothers:
‘Morris is waiting for us in a hotel in San Francisco. He will point Warm out to us and we will be on our way. It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busy burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding.’ (p9)
The brothers’ violence, apparent lack of conscience and their appalling reputation as men who will do anything if the pay is enough is at odds with what the reader sees of them. Not only do they have a flair for humour and an appreciation of the absurd, they bicker like small boys, show tenderness towards their horses, and are haplessly prone to accidents. Not far into the book, Eli is nearly killed by a spider bite. It is also Eli who is susceptible to the gentler sex and is often dismayed by how crude and cruel they can be. The brothers’ violence, though extreme, has a context, particularly in the situation that they find themselves in. The establishment of the United States as we would recognise it now was still some way off, the west was being settled, much to the distress and anger of many native American tribes, and perhaps most of all for California, the Gold Rush was well underway, infecting Americans of all backgrounds with the promise of enormous wealth. That so many of them fell for it is hardly surprising. Most of them were the products of the sort of poverty Charles Dickens wrote about. DeWitt doesn’t labour the point, but it is clear that for some people, wealth or the promise of it went to their heads. His vivid depiction of San Francisco includes a scene where a man tells of spending $30 on a meal that would have cost him half a dollar in his home town. When Charlie Sisters describes that as the behaviour of a moron, the man says:
‘ I agree. One hundred percent I agree. And I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively.’ (p174)
It’s worth mentioning the title of the book. The brothers are the Sisters, which draws attention to their hyper-masculinity, and the fact that they don’t exactly behave like a pair of monks. As brothers go, they are lewd, violent and inclined to self-destructive drunken binges. Charlie seems to be incapable of getting through a day without drinking, copulating and preferably both, much to the somewhat envious chagrin of his sibling.
The climax of the novel is a suitably emotional, high-stakes resolution to the storyline. The brothers’ encounter with Warm is absolutely harrowing, involving devastating loss and pain and ultimately, the possibility of redemption. However, it’s not a saccharine denouement; Charlie and Eli are too flawed and human for that. The way forward, offered by the twist at the end is likely to be as long and hard in its way as anything else the brothers have been through.
The novel doesn’t offer much to those who prefer their fiction to be rich with female characters. They are there and are often strongly drawn, but they aren’t foregrounded. The backdrop of the Gold Rush means that those the brothers encounter on their travels tend to be men; women are there but not as solo travellers. The rather flat depiction of the native Americans the brothers encounter might disappoint some readers. It draws a lot on the tradition of some Western movies – there’s a flavour of cowboys ‘n injuns about it. However, we are seeing things through Eli’s perspective and it’s unlikely that he’s had much experience of non-white Americans. Slavery was still embedded in California at the time and black people had a presence in the Gold Rush, as slaves and freed men and women. However, they are almost invisible in the novel. Having said that, a novel is exactly what deWitt has written. It’s not a history, it’s a character sketch and from that point of view, it works well. It’s readable, moving and is both laugh-aloud funny and terribly sad.
Granta. London. 2011. ISBN 978-1-24708-372-2. Kindle Edition.