There’s a lot to be said for a catchy title. I mean, never
having read a Western (oops, I’m forgetting All the Pretty Horses) and with a strong tendency to avoid cowboy films, what else would have made me pick up The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt except the desire to work out if it was about men or women? Nor had I heard of any of the writers whose names appear on the back cover, but they did use some interesting words, like ‘noir’ and ‘picaresque’ (a term I believe derives from Don Quixote – no, I haven’t read that either). And yes, it’s been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. So maybe it was time to get to grips with this ‘brutal revision’ of a genre I barely know in its unrevised state.
I have to say, revision or otherwise, I took to the book straight
away. It’s told by Eli Sisters, brother of Charlie, the two of them contract
killers working in the West in 1850. From page one we know Eli has a chip on
his shoulder. His immediate gripe is being landed with a rubbish horse, but he’s clearly also kicking at the traces of his brother’s assumed role as team leader. Throughout the novel this is the theme – Eli’s acceptance of things as they are is coming to an end. He has increasing doubts over the lifestyle he and his brother have acquired and is showing distinct signs of thinking, and acting, for
It’s a long time since I read Of Mice and Men, but in the contrast of physique and outlook, the brothers called to mind George and Lennie. Eli is big and lumbering with a secret ambition is to run a general store. Charlie is wiry, quick and looks set to amass the wealth and a reputation which will one day put him in the shoes of their current employer, The Commodore.
But I don’t remember Steinbeck being quite this funny. As well as a run of bizarre incidents with which the novel opens ( the discovery of dental hygiene, encounter with a witch, closely followed by a bear) there’s something about Eli’s dead-pan style of observation that had me laughing out loud. Here’s a typical passage. Morris, by the way, is an investigator who has been sent ahead to report on the brothers’ next target.
Eli says to his brother,
‘… why doesn’t Morris kill him?’
‘That’s always your question, and I always have my answer. It’s not his job but ours.’
‘ …but the man is spending the night in the streets. What is holding Morris back from shooting him as he sleeps?
‘How about the fact that Morris is not a killer?’
Then why send him at all? Why did he not send us a month ago instead?’
Have to say I am on Eli’s side here with his gloriously child-like view, which Charlie, as exasperated parent, is always going to disregard.
It’s soon clear that Eli has little taste for violence but when he is roused he will use it in the most sudden and casual way, and it’s the counterpoint of humour and carnage that makes the book what it is and seems to sum up the mad atmosphere of the gold rush. Because as the men home in on their target, the lust for gold and the aray of terrible fates awaiting those in its grip become the overriding topic. Charlie and Eli also fall victim and as Eli hauls buckets of gold from the river, he says
‘This moment, this one position in time, is the happiest I will ever be as long as I
am living.’ But disaster is already overtaking them, and ‘Everything after this was death in one way or another.’
It’s a simple story, in the end, of greed, loss and redemption, but along the way we’re tossed from the comical to the deeply unfunny, to an ending that moves from horror story to a rather unexpected meditation on love.
The Sisters Brothers is highly readable with a feeling of real
originality and wit. I can honestly say it’s the best of the Mann Booker
short-list I’ve read so far. (But maybe I should try another!)
By the way, this review was originally written for The
Dabbler Book Club, through good whose offices I obtained a copy, but I see that someone has beaten me to it. Do go and read the other version if you haven’t already.