That does not make it any easier to write a review of The Sisters Brothers. While I do read a fair bit of historical fiction set in Western North America, it tends not to be the gunslinger variety. Indeed, before even trying to describe my response to the book permit me to cut to the chase by quoting an assessment (in full) that “asbo” left on the Booker Forum after reading this book:
I could easily see the Coen Brothers making the movie of The Sisters Brothers, so if you like Coen Brothers movies I guarantee you will enjoy the book.
I’m not a fan of the Coen brothers’ work (and John C. Reilly has apparently bought the rights, but you can see what “asbo” is getting at), so that statement is made without personal endorsement here — I do suspect it is an accurate assessment and if it lands positively with you, you might not want to read any farther here and just go buy the novel.
To help with my challenge with deWitt’s novel (he was born in Canada but now lives in Portland — we might see this one again when the Giller longlist is announced), let me sketch a conceptual triangle of Western fiction. At one of the bottom corners, you have Zane Grey and the conventional good guy/bad guy model with a fair bit of killing as part of the action. At the other bottom corner, Cormac McCarthy (especially The Border Trilogy) — hostile Nature joins hostile people in the mix. And at the peak, let me place Wallace Stegner (see my review of Angle of Repose) where the story focuses on confronting that hostile nature rather than shooting each other, even if there is a fair bit of non-fatal human conflict involved.
Charlie and Eli Sisters are gunmen who have been hired by the Commodore to kill a prospector in California named Hermann Kermit Warm. Eli narrates the story and, while he is very much a killer, he does have a humane side (very unlike his brother) and is actually thinking he might escape his current line of work for something quieter, say running a trading post in his native Oregon. Consider, for example, Eli’s contemplation of his new horse (Tub) while he is waiting for his brother to get instructions from the Commodore — the brothers’ last pair of horses were “immolated” on their most recent job:
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 is a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner.
The brothers face a trek of several days from Oregon to San Francisco where Warm is and it does not start well. The Commodore has said that Charlie is to be the “lead” on this project (and will get a bigger share of the take) — Eli does not think this is right, so there is tension between the two from the start. Things get worse on day one when Eli is bit by a spider and his head swells grotesquely when he reacts badly to the antivenom. They visit a second doctor and it is worth a pause to illustrate how deWitt sketches his characters:
The story of Reginald Watts was a luckless one dealing in every manner of failure and catastrophe, though he spoke of this without bitterness or regret, and in fact seemed to find humor in his numberless missteps: ‘I’ve failed at straight business, I’ve failed at criminal enterprise, I’ve failed at love, I’ve failed at friendship. You name it, I’ve failed at it. Go ahead and name something. Anything at all.’
‘Agriculture,’ I said.
‘I owned a sugar beet farm a hundred miles northeast of here. Never made a penny. Hardly saw one sugar beet. A devastating failure. Name something else.’
Watts failed at that too, but you are going to have to read the novel to find out how (it is quite a funny paragraph, actually — deWitt delivers a number of very good set pieces). We are moving in the direction of McCarthy territory here and the rest of the first half of the book features elements of both Grey and McCarthy. Watts survives his experience with the Sisters; the same will not be true of many of the other characters the two meet on their way to San Francisco. Charlie’s response to confrontation is to shoot first and bury later (with Eli helping out as required in both the shooting and burying); I did not attempt to keep a body count as the book went on.
While all this is taking place, the author is establishing Eli as a character with more than one dimension, although that does require some “give” on the reader’s part. And, when the brothers finally get to San Francisco and find Hermann Kermit Warm, deWitt puts a curveball into play and the novel moves much closer to Stegner territory — I’d say the last half would be virtually at the centre of my conceptual triangle. And there is no point in spoiling how it gets there. If you don’t like the outline of the first part of the book, you probably want no part of any of it — if it sparks your curiosity, the novel does acquire depth.
deWitt is a strong writer; the narrative is fast-paced and even the awkwardness in some of Eli’s wording is effectively deliberate. Unfortunately, for an action-based book, most of the incidents are quite predictable and even when the story becomes more contemplative you can only take the notion of a hired gunslinger with a heart so far.
The Sisters Brothers deserves high marks as an entertaining Western, with the added praise that it does have a non-Western twist to its second half. For me, that is not enough to make it Booker shortlist material, as worthy as it might have been as this year’s conventional “unconventional” title on the longlist.