Waiting in my chiropractor’s treatment room I spied this book on his bookshelf. I was looking it over when he came in and he immediately insisted that I borrow it. He was very enthusiastic about the book and so I obliged. After reading the book I now know that my good-natured chiropractic practitioner is a fan of dark humour and a high body count. He also knows what he is talking about because The Sisters Brothers is a fine novel and also one that manages to reinvigorate the Western for a modern palette by going beyond genre conventions into the realm of literature.
Set in 1850 on the west coast of America, the novel concerns the picaresque journey of two brothers who are in the employ of the Commodore (a wealthy thug basically) as hired killers on the trail of a strange individual called Hermann Kermit Warm. Charles is the eldest brother and is also the most headstrong and violent. Eli is the novel’s narrator and voice of reason amongst the carnage. Eli and Charles are infamous killers and they attract and involve themselves in various killings and misfortunes, many of which they take in their stride with psychopathic aplomb.
There is a great deal of casual black humour associated with the situations the brothers get themselves into and Eli’s dry observations are often both entertaining and drolly insightful. Despite being dysfunctional killers in the employ of a powerfully evil businessman, De Witt’s depiction of the brothers makes them very sympathetic characters. Eli’s predilection towards questioning the validity of his profession and to yearn for a more settled lifestyle is contrasted with Charles’s confident and bloodthirsty attitude. Despite this Eli’s love for his brother shines through. We also see Eli clumsily attempt to woo various women and treat strangers fairly until proven otherwise. Eli also cares deeply for his ineffectual horse, which at one stage he saves from a bear and keeps riding it even though it is seriously compromised by a mauled eye. He’s a killer with a heart of gold it seems.
The novel benefits from the simple yet effective plot. After the Sisters brothers manage to become sidetracked into all kinds of adventures on their way to kill Hermann Warm, they arrive in California to find that Henry Morris (a dandy informer in the employ of the Commodore) has absconded with their target for the goldfields of California. Here’s where the tale becomes very dark indeed. Whether or not this tale is a cautionary one, or has some kind of allegorical subtext, is very much up to the reader. I cannot make up my mind just how deep deWitt’s tale goes, but fortunately you do not need to worry either way, as the novel is very entertaining in any case.
Personally I’m a fan of spaghetti westerns and the HBO series Deadwood and I find this period in American history to be fascinating, even via potentially historically dubious mediums. So the plot held great entertainment value for me and I appreciated that deWitt made the effort to give the characters historically authentic speech patterns and turns of phrase. At least it seemed authentic to me when comparing it to Deadwood, in which the producers went for authenticity, unlike their series Rome in which the Romans spoke like modern day citizens.
I was sorry when this novel ended as I’d become attached to the Sisters brothers and was thoroughly hooked into caring about what happened to them. The Sisters Brothers was short listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, which is in many ways better than actually winning it, which seems to be a bit of a curse these days. The Sisters Brothers is not the greatest book ever written, but it is an example of how to write a tale that manages to be both literate and engaging. Meanwhile I may well check out deWitt’s debut novel Ablutions (2009), which has Bukowskiesque themes that I find very attractive in a book.