Wednesday, August 10, 2011

*The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

ecco/Harper Collins
328 pp.

"It turns out, and I don't know why this is, and have at times wished it were not so, but yes -- we had or have an aptitude for killing."

Let's face it, Westerns just aren't my thing, and that includes both books and movies.  The most "Western" novel I've read is McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (and The Crossing, which I'm reading now on Kindle).  So after I read the blurb on the dustjacket of The Sisters Brothers which called it "an homage to the classic Western," I was a bit afraid to continue on into the novel.  But read it I did, and overall it was a well-written story with some funny moments.  I have mixed feelings about this book:  it was highly entertaining yet not overly spellbinding , and what I'd picture as a  Western turned on its head.

The book in nutshell is this: Charles and Eli Sisters are renowned gunslingers, feared far and wide for their viciousness.   They both grew up around violence -- their father was a "bad man," and when Charlie would get into a fight, he was in it to the death, unable to "engage in your average fight with fists or even knives."  With family members hot for revenge, Charlie soon became outnumbered, and Eli, whose "temper had always been high," eventually began jumping in to help.  Soon enough, a fight with Charlie was a fight with both of the brothers, and their reputation was born.   They are currently working for a shady figure known as The Commodore, and their job, which Eli swears will be his last, is to find and kill one of the Commodore's sworn enemies, a certain Hermann Kermit Warm.  The journey to find Warm  takes them from Oregon City to San Francisco not long after gold has been discovered in California, but when they finally arrive at their destination, things take a very different turn than the one they were expecting. 

The characters are all drawn quite well. Eli, who narrates the story, declares that he's had  enough of this itinerant life ...he says that he just wants to settle down and be a shopkeeper, marry and live a normal, quiet life.   He's a nasty killer with a humane streak,  childishly enjoying the taste of mint tooth powder and a newly-found appreciation for dental health at one moment or offering sincere pity at appropriate times, but the question here is how this penchant for caring and yearning for a civilized life will play out -- is it real or just wishful thinking? Eli has to be one of the most neurotic characters in this book; actually, Charlie is a close runner up. Now that I think about it,  most of the characters the brothers meet have some sort of mental maladjustments in their respective makeups.    Charlie is a hard drinker, takes laudanum and morphine, and shoots to make his point; he feels superior to Eli and he has no compunction about stealing, but doesn't like being unfairly accused when he is innocent.   At the same time, he and Eli are capable of entering into "clinical" discussions over certain points of morality, which often eases the tension they feel when together and allows them to come to their "truces."  But the good characterizations are not simply limited to those of the two brothers --there are a few other people whose hapless backstories can't help but the make the reader laugh.   The humor embedded into this novel is one of its best features -- at times it's rather deadpan but sometimes is capable of producing an honest-to-goodness laugh. But there are also times that the reader is taken by surprise when the author gets serious on a sympathy-evoking level; for example, he throws in a luckless prospector who is so far gone that he brews and drinks dirt, believing that it's really coffee. 

The story is related in an almost-Victorian style of narrative, complete with some very somber and reflective musings from the characters that afford the story a bit more depth just past the halfway point.  The author provides an excellent description of San Francisco during the heyday of California's goldrush, when prices were inflated and some people lived off their hopes and others off of their greed.  I only have one real issue with this book:  as the brothers enter  into various adventures, sometimes  the reader can pretty much foresee what's going to happen, taking some anticipation  away from a few scenes in the story.  I don't really care for predictibility in a story; it's up there with the dreaded miraculous coincidence as far as I'm concerned. 

 I have to admit that I rather liked The Sisters Brothers.  It doesn't  have the depth of some novels I've read that kept me thinking for a long time after I'd finished them, but it was very entertaining. Sometimes that's what I look for in a novel, and in that sense, this book did not disappoint. 


  1. Everyone seems to find this book entertaining! It is nice to see a book loved universally :-)

  2. I think the title of this book is what has originally drawn me to it, and it just sounds like something I haven't read before. I think you're right, sometimes all I'm looking for is to be entertained, good to know it fits that brief, I've just bumped it up my list!

  3. Jackie: It's so different, and I think that's part of its appeal. And it's funny!

  4. Mummazappa: Considering it made the Booker Longlist, I was expecting something a bit different, but actually, it was a pleasant surprise. Sometimes I think it's good to read a book for its literary merit, but in this case, the entertainment value won me over. Any time a book makes me laugh once in a while, and still maintains a bit of intelligence, I consider it a good one.


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.