You can tell a lot about a man by how he treats animals. At the very beginning of Patrick deWitt’s comedic Western, The Sisters Brothers, we are introduced to narrator Eli Sisters in the most becoming of fashions: “I was very fond of my previous horse ... . He could cover 60 miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him and clean him ... .” However, such sentiments of Eli Sisters as a good man are laid to waste when you find out his true profession. Along with his brother Charlie, Eli is a hired killer, working out of Oregon City in the throes of the California Gold Rush of the early 1850s for a shady entity known only as “the Commodore”.
It turns out that both Eli and Charlie have a job to do: kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. Why? At the outset of the novel, the reasons are murky. He allegedly stole something of worth from the Commodore, but that’s about all we – and the infamous Sisters Brothers – know, and the motivation is never questioned. All Eli and Charlie have to do is kill Warm, get paid, and move onto the next job – though tracking Warm is not an easy task, being lost somewhere in the wilds of California during the prospecting craze.
And so begins The Sisters Brothers, a richly textured, atypical Western written by a Canadian who happens to live in the US. The Canadian-ness of the author has all but been whitewashed by the new US paperback edition of the book, but it’s notable for Patrick deWitt, the author of this sophomore novel, was one of two Canadians shortlisted this past year for England’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, arguably the most distinguished of all literary awards outside of the Pulitzer or Nobel Prize. (The other Canadian was Esi Edugyan, who was nominated for her work Half-Blood Blues.)
What’s more, deWitt walked away with one of Canada’s highest literary honours last year, the Governor General’s Award. It’s a bit of a surprise in some respects that the Governor General’s Award went to a book that is remarkably American in both setting and its sense of genre-specificness, but, then again, the award once went to Paul Quarrington’s excellent Whale Music, which was solely set in Los Angeles. In any event, The Sister Brothers has gone on to get laurels from other areas of distinction, having been named a Best Book of the Year by the likes of Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, and Amazon.com.
There’s good reason for all of these accolades being afforded deWitt’s book: it’s simply a rip-roaring, engrossing read – even for those who might frown upon the Western as a serious genre. In many ways, The Sister Brothers is an atypical Western: while it shares its sense of blood-letting with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the violence – save, perhaps, for a scene where a horse’s eye gets gouged out – feels particularly toned down and off-the-page, especially in the early going, and feels as routine as the job that the Sisters brothers are set to carry out.
The novel also has its share of comedic flourishes as Charlie and Eli dicker about who should take the lead on the job: Eli is portrayed as a bit of a bumbling, clumsy oaf, and yet Charlie is often incapacitated thanks to his love of the bottle. This bit of dark, yet funny, shading works to the advantage of the book as it transforms what would ordinarily be two unlikable, possibly psychopathic, characters into people you wind up rooting for – even if that means that a potentially innocent man might get killed in the bargain. In fact, The Sisters Brothers is less of a novel than it is a homage to the characters of Jules and Vinnie in Pulp Fiction. You can’t help but smile and grin as the brothers set about their grim task.
What also elevates The Sisters Brothers from the typical trappings of a Western is that it spends a great deal of time on the journey and the bizarre assortment of characters that the duo meets. This isn’t a simple Cowboys and Indians tale; this is one of a baffling puzzlement over the state of humanity, where there are shades of ambiguity at every turn, and it almost plays out like a computer Role Playing Game in that the supporting characters have a role to play in defining Charlie and Eli’s quest. Everyone from a dentist who introduces Eli to the wonders of tooth paste, to a shamanic woman who may or may not have put a spell on the brothers, to the various hardworking women of hotel establishments (read: not prostitutes) that Eli swoons over upon first glancing eyes upon, do something to add to the sense of desolation that Eli soon finds himself feeling over the nature of his hired work.
There’s also a certain sense of foreboding in The Sisters Brothers: Charlie feels naturally loyal to the Commodore and the job that he has chosen to carry out, but Eli soon grows weary of a life of killing, and his desire to leave this unbecoming lifestyle in the dust has a lot to do with the decisions that the killers wind up making in the last act of the novel, and the moral questioning by the main characters as to whether or not their intended mark deserves to die or not. In fact, I’m reminded of a quote from John Wayne – used in Jonathan Lethem’s glorious Western-in-outer-space, Girl in Landscape – that goes, “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity.” Well, if he were still alive, John Wayne would probably hate this book, for this isn’t your typical tale of good versus evil, but the hues of grey that colour the in-between.
However, The Sisters Brothers – in spite of its evocative poetic cadence spoken by Eli’s narration, lifting the novel into the realm of serious literary fiction – is a nearly pitch-perfect read, one that you will get swept away by, flipping the pages relentlessly towards its satisfying conclusion. The only quibble I have is one that appears to be an editing error: a proprietor of a drinking establishment is initially described as being sighted, only to be described later by one of the characters as having one eye. Still, this is a minor thing to pass by, and if you’re looking for a crackling good yarn that elevates itself over simple genre trappings, you should look no further than The Sisters Brothers – one of the most highly entertainment reads I have stumbled across in quite some time.
It has, quite understandably, been optioned for a movie that John C. Reilly will produce and star in (and I can’t think of anyone more perfect for the part of Eli Sisters than him), though I’ll believe it when I’m sitting in a multiplex with a bag of popcorn on my lap. However, do yourself a favour and savour this novel before it potentially hits the silver screen. With all of the knotting plotting of a thriller, The Sisters Brothers effortlessly transcends boundaries, and is a rousing good time to be had for those who simply come along for the ride. On horses, no less.