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It has been some time since I last read an historical Western – probably in my teens some forty years ago. I have read and enjoyed modern-day cowboy stories – Brokeback Mountain and All the Pretty Horses but not historical westerns. It isn’t a genre that I normally would choose. I opted to read Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers as a 2011 Man Booker shortlisted book and from the cover without really knowing what the book was about.. The cover is very striking and unusual – orange with a white skull and two black silhouetted characters (heir heads forming the eye sockets).
The plot of the novel is somewhat straightforward. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired killers whose mission is to find and to kill one Herman Kermit Warm – a wonderful evocative name for a character if ever I read one. Not just to kill him but to steal his formula for prospecting for gold.
DeWitt presentation of the story is also somewhat straightforward. Written in the first person by narrator Eli Sisters, it is written in a chronological format with short chapters detailing incident following incident as the brothers follow Warm’s trail from Oregon to San Francisco.
And what wild and whacky incidents there are. DeWitt’s novel is almost a parody of a Western . There are saloons and bawdy house girls; men with hats, boots and spurs; gun fights and cherished horses. The 19th century world that Eli entertainingly narrates is certainly amusing but underneath his lyrical language lies a very dark, dismal and brutal reality.
There is a descriptive passage, for instance, where Eli is skinning a bear he is forced to shoot when it attacks his beloved horse, Tub. “The carcass lay on its side before me no longer male or female, only a pile of ribboned meat, alive with an ecstatic and ever-growing community of fat-bottomed flies. Their number grew so that I could hardly see the bear’s flesh, and I could not hear myself thinking, so clamorous was their buzzing.”
Another scene where the same beloved horse has his now infected eye removed by a young cow hand using a spoon is graphically horrible and harrowing. Dewitt somehow manages to turn this into a running comic theme through the book. DeWitt has obviously done his research well and used it to full and funny effect. The Sisters brothers encounter a travelling dentist who introduces Eli to the new concept of oral hygiene. He shows Eli “a dainty, wooden-handled brush with a rectangular head of gray-white bristles” and demonstrates “the proper use of the tool, then blew mint-smelling air on my face.” Eli’s evangelical conversion to this new concept forms another comic running theme through the book. There is also Charlie’s over use of the curative drug laudanum to cure his many hangovers.
It is the vividness of characters that has really gained the book its success. Eli, the narrator and main protagonist, is perhaps the most formed character. Eli wants to give up killing – not because he feels remorse - but because he is tired of all the blood and danger. He wants to settle down with the prostitute for who he develops a non-reciprocated puppy-love infatuation for.
Charlie is the dominant brother and is more passionate than Eli to uphold their reputation as cold-blooded killers - “our blood is the same, we just use it differently”. It is in his relationship with Eli, that Charlie comes to life. The pair bicker and banter constantly throughout the novel - who has the better horse; which of them is in charge; what they will do with the money when they get it. Whilst mainly humourous, the relationship can become a bit dumber and dumberish – which is not so much funny as silly.
It seems a bit strange to like Eli and Charlie so much. They are ruthless killers but like them you do. I think Eli explains it best: “My very centre was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?” Why did I relish the characters – I don’t really know but I did.
The ending has an unexpected twist which adds to the book's enjoyment however I was left wanting a little more. Whilst I liked Eli, I did feel that he could have been developed a little more - maybe he will feature in another novel. Who knows?
The Sisters Brothers is written by Canadian Patrick DeWitt’s: his second novel. His first being, Ablutions. The book (with good reason) won the 2012 Leacock Medal for humour writing and was the winner of the award for Best Fiction at the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards. It was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2012 Walter Scott Prize.
With its 272 pages and short chapters, the book is quick to read. The descriptive and humourous passages make sure you eagerly keep page-turning. It is available in paperback, hardback and kindle format with prices ranging from £2.39 (kindle) to £15 (hardback).
I believe that the book is to be made into a film – not one that John Wayne or my father (a big western fan) would have approved of I’m sure – but I think will appeal to today’s audience. Make sure you read and savour this book before you watch the film!