Book of the week : The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

Can you can tell a lot about a man by how he treats animals? At the very beginning of The Sisters Brothers, we’re introduced to narrator Eli Sisters in the most becoming of fashions: “I was very fond of my previous horse … . He could cover 60 miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him and clean him … .” Any sentiments of Eli Sisters as a good man are quickly laid to waste when you find out his true profession. Along with his brother Charlie, Eli is a hired killer, working out of Oregon City in the throes of the California Gold Rush of the early 1850s for a shady entity known only as ‘the Commodore’

It turns out that both Eli and Charlie have another job to do: kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm. Why? At the outset of the novel, the reasons are murky. He allegedly stole something of worth from the Commodore, but that’s about all we – and the infamous Sisters Brothers – know, and the motivation is never questioned. All Eli and Charlie have to do is kill Warm, get paid, and move onto the next job

With no questions asked, the brothers set off for San Francisco in what promises to be a straight forward job, except that this time the Commodore has put Charlie in charge. The sudden power imbalance in the brothers’ relationship proves the catalyst that prompts Eli to consider whether he is suited indefinitely to life as an assassin, something his blind loyalty to Charlie had previously prevented him from exploring

And so begins The Sisters Brothers, a richly textured, atypical Western written by a Canadian who happens to live in the US. Patrick deWitt, the author of this second novel, was one of two Canadians shortlisted this past year for the Man Booker Prize (the other Canadian was Esi Edugyan, who was nominated for her work Half-Blood Blues) as well as a host of other ‘Book of the Year awards

There’s good reason for all of these accolades being afforded deWitt’s book: it’s simply a rip-roaring, engrossing read – even for those who might frown upon the Western as a serious genre

If Eli is a little slow, he’s also coming awake — compassion is unfolding in him, and he’s considering the possibility of a new life. As the book follows the Sisters brothers on their quest to assassinate Warm, it also tracks Eli’s change. He starts out a brute who goes blank with murderous rage and soon becomes an equally brutish man pleased by the minty taste of the tooth powder a dentist gives him. Just how civilized will he become?

The quest story goes way back — back to ‘Don Quixote’ and, beyond that, to ‘The Odyssey’ — and, just as in these works, between the Sisters brothers and Hermann Kermit Warm there inevitably are a number of adventures and life-changing encounters

There is that dentist, working alone on the frontier, jolly after a series of failures with valuable ‘modern’ medical techniques. There are brusque hotel proprietresses, one of whom Eli falls for. There is a lady accountant, and he falls for her too; he’s a murderer, yes, but also a bit of a softie. She works for a wealthy, dangerous brothel owner, whose easy life appeals to Charlie. There are, of course, evil henchmen, stable hands, a crone who may be a witch and miners gone something close to mad. At one point, the brothers come across a desiccated wagon train and its lone survivor, a starving adolescent with a worthless horse, Lucky Paul

“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 Lucky Paul 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.” There is a lighthearted exasperation in Eli’s words

Despite being not entirely quick, Eli’s voice makes reading the book a treat. It’s smooth and seamless, shot through with dark humour, pared and antique without being Baroque

The book has few descriptions of landscape or buildings they visit. What gets described, instead, are bodily woes. Charlie’s bad drunks and worse hangovers include lots of vomiting, Eli has injuries that bleed and swell, and the decline of Tub, Eli’s horse, after getting swatted by a grizzly is, in the end, well, grisly

There’s something very human in all this blood and guts, in their grim and gross and comic physicality. This humanness, with the humanness that Eli is growing into, give the novel a warmth and depth

Eventually they get to San Francisco, late for their meeting with advance man Henry Morris, who’s supposed to lead them to their target, Warm. The city is in the grips of the gold rush: Morality and honour seem absent — except for what they hear of one man: Warm. A small and unattractive chemist, Warm may hold the key for what they want: For Charlie, that’s wealth and power; for Eli, it’s getting out of the assassination business. But that would mean the fearsome Sisters brothers would come to an end. And in a novel packed with death and debasement, is it possible for everyone to get what they want?

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September 17, 2012

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