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TBTS Reviews: The Sisters Brothers

June 1, 2011

Maybe I’m just noticing them now thanks to True Grit and Deadwood, but it seems to be that the western, the old soldier of American genre fiction, is mounting a comeback of sorts. It’s not the same as before, with the slim mass-market paperbacks of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey crowded on your grandfather’s only bookshelf. No, there is a certain kind of writer who dresses his literary ambitions in dusters and Stetsons, who, though he personally may have more in common with the college professors and the sad young literary men of contemporary fiction, would rather strap on a couple of six-guns in search of some kind of truth. Cormac McCarthy has made the most of it, but he’s not alone: consider Robert Olmstead’s excellent Far Bright Star, set in the pursuit of Pancho Villa across the borderlands in 1916; Charles Portis’s body of work, now being rediscovered thanks to the Coen Brothers; even the saga of a lone survivor in post-apocalyptic Siberia, Marcel Theroux’s astounding Far North, has the unmistakable feel of a western from the very first words (“Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.”) As settings go for exploring man’s savage nature, you could do worse than to strap on your spurs and ride into the desolate American West.

Patrick deWitt may be the latest to do so, but he seems determined to do more than just follow McCarthy’s well-marked trail in giving us Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of hired killers sent by an unscrupulous kingpin called The Commodore after a prospector with the unlikely handle of Hermann Kermit Warm. Right away, deWitt lets you know this isn’t your average hired killer talking:

I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase new horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by. I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it? Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind and in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.

Eli is a deep and complex narrator, a murderer with no liking for his work who dreams one day of settling down to an easier, milder life as a shopkeeper. But his brother, Charlie, has developed a taste for it, and drives poor Eli ever deeper into the life of the hired gunman, openly mocking him for wanting a quieter life. Eli is at once sad and comic, and reminds me of a dog that has been kicked too often; he wants to be gentle, but his history has bred a dangerous streak in him. Eli’s voice is stiffer and more formal than a contemporary reader might be used to – there’s hardly a contraction in sight – but it serves the character well, and rather than coming across stilted it makes the character stand out. The tension between brothers is the beating heart of the book, while the struggle between Eli’s gentle nature and what he’s become thanks to life’s misfortunes is its soul. And this book has a lot of heart and a lot of soul, let me tell you.

It’s a funny book, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny but often disquieting and strange. The supporting cast shines, and everyone from the poor unfortunate horse, Tub, whose lot in life seems at times the mirror of his rider’s, to the prospector Warm, whose main offense against the Commodore was not letting the Commodore have his way, adds something unique to the story; nothing is wasted. DeWitt’s prose is compelling without being flashy, with tight descriptions and dialogue which is natural and sharp in spite of a level of formality which seems to stand as a challenge to the loose, conversational style many if not most contemporary authors use. 

The Sisters Brothers is an accomplishment, a well-made modern Western. It’s more like Mark Twain with occasional graphic violence than McCarthy, at once friendlier and more disturbing, wonderfully alive and human even in its darkest moments. I highly recommend it.

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