The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (2011) 325 p.
The Western seems to be enjoying a revival in the last few years, at least as far as my personal tastes are concerned. Of the top ten films in my Best of the 00’s list, one is a classic Western (The Proposition) one is a modern Western (No Country For Old Men) and one is a sort-of Western (There Will Be Blood). Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James before I compiled that list, it would have placed very high. True Grit was awesome. Deadwood is one of the most well-regarded TV series of recent years. I’m currently playing Red Dead Redemption, one of the best video games I’ve come across in a while. Last year’s Vogel Award was won by The Roving Party, an Australian Western. Westerns Westerns everywhere. Westward ho!
They have changed a lot, of course, since the chiselled-jaw John Wayne films of the 50’s and 60’s, which I occasionally catch on daytime television. Those were stories about man triumphing over nature, about man surviving against the wilderness and the natives, about man being manly. These days Westerns are generally used to explore the human psyche, particularly its capacity for violence.
In this sense, The Sisters Brothers is very much in line with other recent Westerns. Where it differs is in its quirkiness. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “hilarious,” as some reviewers have, but it’s certainly “darkly comic” and “off-beat,” to use other favoured terms. As an example, in the opening sentence Eli casually mentions that he and his brother have new horses, as their previous ones were “immolated.” But – like True Grit, another funny Western – it has a serious side as well.
The novel follows the titular Sisters brothers, hired killers employed by “The Commodore” in 1851 Oregon, on a mission to find and kill a California gold prospector named (in the delightfully ridiculous 19th century style) Hermann Kermit Warm. Along the trail to San Francisco they meet many strange and amusing characters, from starving children to weeping cowboys to prostitute accountants, and these encounters serve to remind Eli of other lives he could be living. He is the less dominant member of the partnership, and is not particularly wedded to life as an assassin. Eli narrates the novel with a mixture of wistfulness and resignation; when they abandon a child to his fate in the wilderness, he thinks “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.” His character arc follows his desire to leave this life of killing, matching it against his unwillingness to leave his brother’s side.
This a unique novel, and despite the strangeness of it all, DeWitt manages to give Eli a pitch-perfect voice. He is a confident and gifted writer. Of all the Booker nominees I’ve read, The Sisters Brothers is second only to Jamrach’s Menagerie as my favourite of them.
I was surprised when this made the shortlist, and prior to reading it I doubted it had a shot. A comic Western? But this year’s judges have shown that they are free of prejudice and more than happy to embrace the unusual, and so I believe The Sisters Brothers is a serious contender. I would still describe it as “an unusual choice” if it won, but wouldn’t be massively surprised.