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.
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.’
‘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.