Patrick deWitt: The Sisters Brothers

The Booker Prize longlist this year is quite the mixed bag — at least, from what I’ve read so far (3 of 12 — still).  First, there was the “thriller” that I didn’t really take to (my review of Snowdrops here), then the Holocaust novel I really liked (my review of Far to Go here), and now there’s this western, The Sisters Brothers (2011).  Has there ever been a western on the Booker longlist?  I haven’t checked, but I’m betting no.  Nevertheless, this year we get to go to California in the 1850s where fortunes are made and unmade in moments, and usually with the help of a gun.

Review copy courtesy of Ecco.

This novel is told from the first-person perspective of Eli Sister.  He’s the younger and fatter of the Sisters brothers.  When the book begins, he and his brother Charlie are in Oregon City.  Charlie is meeting with the Commodore to get instructions for their next job.  Eli is waiting outside, a bit sad as he thinks about his last horse who was immolated in the last job. 

Right when the book began I liked Eli’s voice, which deWitt has rendered nicely, even if it probably isn’t realistic that a rough gunslinger in the 1850s could speak so intelligently.  There’s a deliberate awkwardness in the sophistication that just rings true to Eli’s disturbed yet ultimately caring personality.  Here’s a good example of the awkwardness that, nevertheless, comes off as intelligent: “He jumped at our greeting and was loath to help us with the saddles, which I should have been made suspicious by but was too distracted with thoughts of escape to dissect properly.”

When Charlie comes outside after his meeting with the Commodore, he quickly tells Eli they have a new job.  They’re to go to California to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm.  Charlie also tells him that the Commodore made Charlie lead.  Eli is annoyed, and they banter nicely.  For me the jealousy mixed with a genuine love for your brother came off nicely. 

Soon we understand why Charlie is going to be the lead. For one thing, Charlie is not as sensitive.  Where Eli pines for his horse, and eventually gets attached to his new, unfit horse Tub, Charlie couldn’t care less.  Charlie loves the action; he’s a killer who’s good at what he does and who takes pride in it.  Eli is a killer too, and to be sure he doesn’t hesitate when killing is necessary and doesn’t regret it afterwards; but Eli doesn’t really want to make killing necessary anymore.  As the brothers head down to California, they stop at a shop and are waited on by a friendly shopkeeper and a silent girl who runs in and out of the room from behind a curtain.  The following passage demonstrates deWitt’s control of Eli and Charlie’s personalities and shows how he can turn some fun banter into a moment of introspection:

As we rode away in all our finery I said to Charlie, ‘That is a tidy business.’

‘It is tidier than killing,’ he agreed.

‘I believe I could settle into a life like that.  I sometimes think about slowing down.  Didn’t it seem pleasant in there?  Lighting the lamps?  The smell of all the brand-new goods?’

Charlie shook his head.  ‘I would go out of my mind with boredom.  That mute girl would come rushing out of her hole for the hundredth time and I’d shoot her dead.  Or I would shoot myself.’

‘It struck me as a very restful industry.  I’ll wager that old man sleeps very well at night.’

‘Do you not sleep well at night?’ Charlie asked earnestly.

‘I do not,’ I said.  ‘And neither do you.’

‘I sleep like a stone,’ he protested.

‘You whimper and moan.’

‘Ho ho!’

‘It’s the truth, Charlie.’

‘Ho,’ he said, sniffing.  He paused to study my words.  He wished to check if they were sincere, I knew, but could not think of a way to ask without sounding overly concerned.  The joy went out of him then, and his eyes for a time could not meet mine.  I thought, We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness.

Certainly the emotions in the story go up and down.  In one moment there’s humor, in another the tension rises with some disturbing violence, and in another Eli waxes philosophical as he attempts to understand or justify what is going on as the brother’s cause mayhem on their way to kill Warm. 

Much of the first part of the story progresses through brief set pieces.  The brothers meet someone on the road, something happens, they move on, and then something else happens that is not necessarily tied to what happened before and may not be terribly important to the plot except inasmuch as it develops our understanding of the brothers, particularly Eli.  These set pieces, for me, worked better than the last part of the book when the story’s direction is much more — well — direct.  In these set pieces we see Charlie get attached to an idea or, more importantly, to some woman.  He falls in love quickly, and the women recognize in him a bit of tenderness they crave.  He longs to settle down and love and be loved.  Of course, as the story develops, we realize that this is much more a reflection of Charlie’s loneliness since he later finds — and this disturbs him — that he is unmoved to hear something bad happened to one of the women.

As I mentioned above, I was a bit less interested when the brothers finally get to California and the book progresses from A to B to C in a much more direct fashion.  That’s not to say that the final part of the book isn’t interesting and certainly not to say it isn’t exciting — they’re on the trail of Hemann Kermit Warm, who has managed to attract (probably in every way) one of the Commodore’s spies.  And the book rarely strays far from humor.  Here, for example, is a passage I enjoyed from right after the brothers arrived in crazed San Francisco, where people paid more for a meal than I would comfortably pay today:

Charlie was disgusted. ‘Only a moron would pay that.’

‘I agree,’ said the man.  ‘One hundred percent I agree.  And I am happpy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively.  Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.’

So, despite the fact that I found the last section of the book less appealing than the first, I really did enjoy The Sisters Brothers, and if this sounds at all appealing I believe you will too.  The problem I have with it is when I start putting it in context with what I expect from a Booker book.  Eli’s an interesting character, but I don’t think there’s much need to delve into the book to figure him out.  When I think of a Booker book, I think of a book that I want to reread a time or two, and I think this is one to read once, enjoy, and move on.

But don’t let that final sentiment turn you away from the fun.  It’s a good western — not one that breaks the mold, certainly not one that “revises” the genre (as some reports would have it) — but it’s certainly one I recommend.

17 thoughts on “Patrick deWitt: The Sisters Brothers

  1. I did find one significant similarity between this one and Snowdrops: both are novels that consider how a “go with the flow” character (Eli and Nick) survives in an amoral environment. Unfortunately, the answer (they “go with the flow”) doesn’t supply much food for thought.

    Having said that, I enjoyed this book as well — like you, the set pieces in the first two-thirds were the best part for me. And I am sure it will make a good movie.

    I may be reading to much into a throwaway remark, but I take it that you are still finding The Stranger’s Child to be a reading chore?

  2. Trevor says:

    I had to put The Stranger’s Child down for a while, Kevin. It was to the point where I’d pick it up and immediately get tired. I figured the best thing to do would be to stop reading it for a while and go back to it when I’m in a better mood.

    In the interim (I believe I last read The Stranger’s Child on Monday night), I’ve already read one book (and in the first sentence found a lot to be happy about) and have begun another. It took me nearly a week to get through the first 100 pages of The Stranger’s Child, and with decreasing dividends, I must say!

    The strange thing is, I still want to read that book and plan to read more, sooner rather than later. I like the ideas it’s bringing up, but I can’t stand the execution. It’s not that I’m finding his writing convoluted and pretentious (though maybe that’s part of it); it’s that I find it lifeless when it should be packed with energy. The pretty passages seem to be there to be pretty passages and lack the ability to take the narrative and the characters deeper. I guess, in a way, I’d say The Stranger’s Child relies on an interesting idea and good writing, but fails to mix the two in any meaningful way. I kept reading passages and thinking, wow, Wharton/James/Farrell would have done this so much better.

    Ah well — as I said, I got to the point where I couldn’t open the book without becoming annoyed, so a bit of distance could help me approach it more objectively, and I may enjoy it yet.

  3. leroyhunter says:

    What a strange Booker year!

    I’ve just twigged something reading this review, Trevor: the narrator’s voice in this book is *exactly* that of Sissy Spacek’s character in Badlands. I’m thinking of her voiceover specifically.

  4. Trevor says:

    YES! I was trying to place the awkward eloquent complicity, and you just did it. Thanks! (an excellent movie)

  5. Thanks Trevor.

    I definitely intend to read this. It sounds a lot of fun and I have something of a soft spot for Westerns.

    What it doesn’t sound like is a Booker novel. In a sense that’s a good thing because there shouldn’t be such a thing as a Booker novel, but the answer to that is to be open to different kinds of excellent writing (and arguably with C winning last year there was a move in that direction).

    So, a good novel by both your and Kevin’s account and one I’m sure I’ll enjoy. Not however a literary novel which is what I think the Booker prize should be rewarding.

  6. As always, it’s good to hear your thoughts. You may not be the only one having difficulty placing The Sisters Brothers in the context of a Booker novel – when the Guardian Books Podcast did their summary of the Booker Long List they left it out entirely (which I found bizarre).

    I make the connection between the narrative voice of Eli and True Grit’s Mattie… I think they’re almost identical. In fact, I view the Sisters Brothers as something of an homage to those older novels by Portis, L’Amour and early McMurty. While I don’t think it “revised” the Western, I do believe it has contributed to elevating the genre while at the same time retaining the characteristics that make a Western what it is. (Much like Michael Chabon does with different genres of fiction in his work, or Clint Eastwood did to the Western film when he made The Unforgiven).

  7. Trevor says:

    I make the connection between the narrative voice of Eli and True Grit’s Mattie…

    I thought the syntax and such were very similar there too — only deWitt uses contractions :) .

  8. I really enjoyed this book. Usually, award winning novels are chosen because they challenge the reader (but they aren’t very fun to read). This book received so much attention because it’s compelling and intelligent.

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