|THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Patrick deWitt (patrickdewitt.net)
The Western genre has come a long way from its sunny heights back in the golden days of Hollywood, when John Wayne ruled supreme and you could differentiate the good guys from the bad guys purely based on the colour of their hats. These days, there is more gritty realism, and the distinction between good and bad is often a difficult one to make. There is no place for John Wayne in Lonesome Dove or Deadwood.
Patrick deWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, falls firmly into this new, gritty style of Western. It is the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, hired killers from Oregon City in the employ of a man known simply as the Commodore, and of their latest job: go to San Francisco, find the thief Hermann Warm, and kill him. Told from the point of view of Eli, the more stable of the two brothers, it is a darkly comic tale of family ties and redemption, set against the background of the California Gold Rush.
Take Steve Hockensmith’s Amlingmeyer brothers (Holmes on the Range, etc.) and change the colour of their metaphorical hats, and you’ll have some idea of what’s in store when you crack open this book. Charlie, the older of the two brothers, is a man who likes to drink, whore and kill. Eli has problems with his temper which make him the perfect partner for his older brother, but he enjoys the drinking, the whoring and the killing a good deal less. They’re both decidedly likeable, despite their foibles, and it’s a pleasure to accompany them on their journey from Oregon City to San Francisco, as they move towards the realisation of who and what they are.
Despite the humour, and the brothers’ likeability, the reader is never in any doubt that these are a couple of psychopaths. deWitt deftly moves from high humour to taut drama at the drop of the proverbial hat, as the brothers switch to killing mode in a handful of short passages that will send a cold shiver up your spine. The name Sisters strikes fear in the hearts of all who hear it, and the reputation is well-earned. While Eli claims not to enjoy his work, it is clear that Charlie does not share the sentiment and at times the reader is left with the nagging doubt that the only reason Eli is still alive at all is because of the ties that bind the brothers together.
It’s a beautifully-written book with a voice reminiscent of Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross (True Grit) and an oddness evidenced by the motley cast of supporting characters with whom the brothers meet on their journey: the weeping man; the boy with a head that cries out to be struck with the nearest blunt object; the old prospector who brews dirt and convinces himself that it is the finest coffee. The prose and the dialogue run from the sublime:
“…Will you return the money or the pelt?”
“All you will get from me is Death.” Charlie’s words, spoken just as casual as a man describing the weather, brought the hair on my neck up and my hands began to pulse and throb. He is wonderful in situations like this, clear minded and without a trace of fear. He had always been this way, and though I had seen it many times, every time I did, I felt an admiration for him.
to the ridiculous:
“He describes his inaction as cowardice and laziness,” said Charlie.
“And with five men dead,” I said, “he describes our overtaking his riches as easy.”
“He has a describing problem,” said Charlie.
Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic is up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.