LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2011!
We all know the expression, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but in the case of Patrick DeWitt’s new novel, The Sisters Brothers, the cover was what caught my eye. The primative style, the bold red, black and white, the way the cartoon heads of the gunslingers, superimposed upon the full moon, look like a skull – I was intrigued.
And what’s more, I wasn’t disappointed. This book was exactly what the cover promised: mayhem, bloodshed, with a large dash of whimsy and humor.
This is the story of two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, guns-for-hire at the start of the California gold rush. A shady character called The Commodore sends them from Oregon City to The American River in California to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warms. The purpose isn’t immediately clear, but the structure of this novel is that of a classic quest journey. The brothers will experience many adventures and undergo significant change as a result of this journey. You, the reader, will enjoy the trip a lot more than they do!
Of the brothers, Charlie (the older brother) is the darker and more violent man. Younger brother, Eli, has a softer heart but is ultimately loyal to his brother. Eli is our narrator throughout the story, which allows us an innocent’s rationalized view of some pretty irrational behavior.
Charlie is appointed the leader of this expedition; sibling history and rivalries punctuate the narrative throughout. In the opening chapter, the brothers were forced to get new horses when their previous horses “had been immolated”. It is typical of Eli to give us this type of detail without further elaboration or emotion.
There is some tension about these horses, which the brothers acquired as partial payment for a job. The problem was the inequity between the two animals – one named “Nimble,” the other “Tub”. The names tell us everything we need to know about the two horses. Charlie, as older brothers will do, commandeerd Nimble and assigned Tub to Eli while Eli recovered from a leg wound. Eli describes Tub as “portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles a day.”
In order to deal with this horse, Eli tells us:
I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which 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.
When Eli continues to complain about Tub, the following conversation takes place:
Charlie, “I’m done talking about your horse, Eli.”
“If you think it will not come up again, you are mistaken.”
“Then I’m done talking about your horse today.”
These exchanges, the way that a lifetime of familiarity shapes interactions between brothers, is one of the charms of this book. The other charm is watching Eli begin to question the life they lead and what impact it has on them.
In one scene, they come across a young boy who has been abandoned in the wilderness by his father. He wants the Sisters to allow him to travel with them, but they refuse. Eli, however, is disturbed and considers
I wished the boy safe travels, but these were empty words, for he was clearly doomed…He stood there weeping and watching us go, while behind him [the boy’s horse] entered and collapsed the prospector’s tent, and I thought, Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.
When the brothers finally locate the object of their assignment, Hermann Kermit Warm, we realize that the journey has made subtle changes in both of them. The events that transpire at the climax of the book show us just how markedly they’ve changed. They return to Oregon City very different men than they were when they left.
There is plenty of bloodshed and many grisly scenes, but the warmth and humor in Eli’s narration distances us from it. Not long ago I reviewed another saga of the Old West, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. It’s an interesting comparison to see how the desperate events in both of these books lead to such opposite conclusions: complete corruption of the human soul in one, salvation in the other.
I thoroughly enjoyed every page of The Sisters Brothers. It has everything you might want in a summer read: adventure, humor, great characters, and a satisfying ending. I recommend you get yourself a copy real soon!