The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
Does it help to write a comic novel if your name is deWitt? The jury is out on that questions because, despite the blurb on its cover saying it is “so good, so funny, so sad”, I didn’t find it a rib cracker. If I was asked to characterise it I would say it was a picaresque novel with a touch of Don Quixote and Thomas Pynchon about it. You could imagine some of the characters inhabiting a Dylan song of the mid 1970s, perhaps Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.
I came across this book in a roundabout sort of way. I was reading a review of deWitt’s latest novel which was compared less favourably with this one and I thought I would check it out. What we have is a story set in Oregon and California during the gold rush at the turn of the 1850s. The principal characters are two psychopathic hired killers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who have a mission to kill one Hermann Kermit Warm for a Mister Big known as the Commodore. Essentially it is a road trip – an odyssey is a popular way of telling a yarn these days – packed full of incidents, eccentric characters and death, narrated by Eli Sisters.
Gratuitous and casual killing features large, not surprisingly as the protagonists are guns for hire and life is cheap. Lady luck is fickle and fortunes are won and lost at the drop of a hat. In this rather cartoonish world no one minds over much – there is a shrug of the shoulders, they dust themselves down and move on to the next episode.
This is not a novel for the over-sensitive. There are some scenes of what today passes as animal cruelty – a rather brutal removal of a horse’s eye – and for the squeamish the accounts of crude amputations and amateur dentistry can be be upsetting. On the other hand such reactions emphasise the power of deWitt’s descriptive writing. And in 1851 gold rush California this was the norm and, I’m sure, far worse happened. Despite its violent patina there is a sensitive story trying to break out.
The narrator, Eli Sisters, is a sensitive soul deep down, is tired of all this killing and wants to settle down to a quiet life in retail. He’s in awe of his brother and is bullied into continuing on their killing spree. As Eli says of the two of them, “Our blood is the same, we just use it differently”. The denouement, the final encounter with Warm, is again violent and heart-rending but in a totally unexpected way.
I won’t spoil the story but suffice it to say, the formula which the Commodore is after and Warm possesses proves to be a little too toxic for all concerned. Still out of tragedy, the Sisters Brothers are reunited and Eli sort of gets his wish. There is a filmic quality to this book and I understand that a movie is being made of it.
The narrative proceeds at a terrific pace – it really is a page turner – and whilst many of characters that the Sisters Brothers encounter seem to have come straight out of cliché corner, there is enough in each of the scenes to satisfy even the most demanding of critics. For me the joy of the book was in deWitt’s writing.
He has a great stock of one liners or phrases that stick in the mind. Try these – “the creak of bed springs suffering under the weight of a restless man is as lonely a sound as I know”; “He is not bad, I don’t think. He is just too lazy to be good” – one for a school report, I’m sure – and my favourite, “I will never be a leader of men and neither do I want to be one and neither do I want to be led, I thought: I only want to lead myself”. A great book.