The Sisters Brothers (TSB) by Patrick deWitt made it to the Booker shortlist last year, and, while I had no qualms about it not being the finalist, I must admit that it made for very refreshing reading and also broke a lot of myths regarding what constitutes ‘good’ fiction. Never have I come across a novel (save perhaps for Updike’s Rabbit series and Roth’s Zuckerman series to a limited extent) where violence, comedy and a certain air of melancholy mingle so effortlessly.
First, I’d like to mention the book’s outstanding cover which shows the two eponymous Sisters Brothers of the novel in garish, black cartoon outline with a pair of eyes that seem to stare out at you. Once you read the novel you realize the level of detailing and wit that has gone into its design. The eyes sit in a face that belongs to a man who yields the power to disintegrate the fragile bond between the two brothers. Does he succeed? The novel will answer that.
The Sisters Brothers is a western in the manner of Wyatt Earp’s myth and John Wayne’s films, set in the late 19th century, with characters who are not so much grounded in real life as representatives of a way of life which the gradual rise of capitalist America killed. However, one must note that TSB is as much a part of the Clint Eastwood’s western capers as Cormac McCarthy’s gory Blood Meridian. It derives from these works, and also parodies and deviates from them.
The story is fairly simple: this novel follows two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, infamous assassins sent on an errand to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, an eccentric and brilliant inventor who has found a way of distilling gold from the river valley; and who is accused of stealing from their boss, the ruthless gangster Commodore. However, this unique method of extracting gold doesn’t come without its own risks and in the end leaves none completely untouched by retribution.
As the brothers set out on their quest from Oregon City to San Francisco, they meet a variety of colourful characters and encounter several adventures all of which is laced with a kind of joie de vivre that celebrates rather than condemns unholy relations, dubious characters, ruthless miscreants and unabashed swagger. This is what makes the novel so enjoyable.
The characters in this novel are all brutal, rude and depraved; however, occasionally, one glimpses a stray current of virtue or kindness in them. The brothers themselves are poles apart – Eli, the narrator, is sensitive and has started to question the relentless and unquestioned violence of their life; Charlie, the older brother is cold blooded, nasty and an unrepentant mercenary. As they travel across the rugged Nevada mountains, they banter, tease, argue with each other and also save each other’s skin. These sections are often farcical in a Jim Carey kind of manner, yet they never seem to dilute the strength of deWitt’s narrative.
There is no doubt that Eli is at the heart of this saga. An odd mix of sensitivity and unpredictable violence, sometimes slow witted and occasionally almost spiritual, lonely yet capable of enjoying the small pleasures of a lonely life, the reader stays committed to this endearing character. While he has chosen a life of evil, one senses that there is something within him that struggles with this life, “My very center was beginning to expand as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?”
As the novel progresses, Eli begins to wonder and wish for a way out of his current life. While he doesn’t exactly evince any great regret or deep seated philosophizing, he wishes for a little warmth, “I had never been with a woman for longer than a night and they had always been whores. And while throughout each of these speedy encounters I tried to maintain a friendliness with the women, I knew in my heart it was false, and afterward always felt remote and caved in. I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without rather than pantomime human closeness.” Such parts make this novel truly rewarding.
Thing is, Eli carries within him traces of a world that has long passed him by. He is not really an outsider in the manner of Randy the Ram, but he is also burdened by a lack of adequate understanding regarding what goes, what works. This is best demonstrated in the episode with his injured horse Tub. As his introspection deepens and the cracks in his character widen, his relationship with the animal changes. He has the chance to swap the slow and wobbly Tub for a new horse, and he does so, but then changes his mind because "he has been a faithful animal to me". All the while, Charlie mocks him as ‘The Protector of Moronic Beasts’.
The truly touching parts of the novel always revolve around Eli, his unmistakable loneliness and his constant efforts to win his brother’s approval and affection, who never misses a chance to remind him what a sentimental bumpkin he is. Despite these bits, Eli never fails to make us laugh, especially with his reactions when he discovers the joys of a toothbrush or the magical powers that a telephone, the “large black horn emerging from the wall beside the bed,” bestows.
In the end TSB is about a journey, from ambition to an acceptance of one’s limitations, from callous disregard to the discovery of a common humanity, a journey from bathos to pathos. It is rollicking as all such journeys are. The journey is as old as time, yet as timeless as any good fable is. As Eli, the narrator, himself agrees, “You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace.”