The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
The Sisters Brothers
Granta Books, Paperback, 272 pages, ISBN 1847083188
Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is a historical novel, in that it’s set in 19th century America, but it is not one in that it doesn’t need to be. Aside from regular, charming and amusing references to the use of the newly-marketed tooth brush – and one which the writer, knowing you’re reading in 2011, wants you to be amused by – the novel could have a contemporary setting. Its conclusion, in which killers Charlie and Eli Sisters reach the gold mining camp of Hermann Kermit Warm, is played out against the backdrop of the Gold Rush and time stamps it after the fact; nothing about the encounter would imply that the novel is as interested in the history as it is with its people.
These are modern characters. As Americans their psyches, particularly that of Eli, whose poetic musings we follow, have more in common with the America of the 21st century than with the 19th century characters that we have come to know through writers like Edgar Allen Poe or Henry James.
Why go to the trouble of setting the novel in the past then? First, it is useful to the plot in that the novel follows the work of two killers with an awesome reputation; two killers who, in an age of federal policing and forensics, could not kill as proficiently and over such a long period of time, announcing themselves to be such famous killers as often as they do.
That aside, though – and the wandering and easy going life of these killers informs the next point, – the setting does seem to hold a thematic drive. The style of life, flattened to simplicity by De Witt, allows for a certain contemplation of those simple facts, a musing on the layers of meaning shrouded behind this simple life of horses and whiskey and brandy and gunshots.
Because really, that’s what The Sisters Brothers wants to be about: impulse, cause and effect, providence and fate, and their relationship to our actions. When they find a beautiful horse unguarded, for example, Charlie remarks ‘ “You are always harkening back in arguments, but another time is another time and thus irrelevant. Providence brought you that black horse. And what will become of the man who shuns Providence?” ‘ only for Eli to reply ‘“Providence has no place in this discussion. An Indian ate too much and died, that was the source of my good fortune.” ‘
The novel is replete with such exchanges. Of their father Eli asks ‘ “How is it that people go crazy?”’,only to receive the unsatisfying answer, ‘“It’s just a thing that sometimes happens.”’ When early in their journey to assassinate Warm the two set to kill a group they find on the road, the brothers – after their work, it had to be said – bicker about the cause of the victims’ deaths: whether it was Eli’s having them stop at an old witch’s house because of a spider’s bite, the bite of the spider itself, or Eli’s anger at not wanting to stay with the old lady in the first place. Or, perhaps, something more mysterious.
There is a constant building up. The discourse between the two brothers, often funny, belies a constant tug and pull: our relationship with our actions, and that of our actions with the wider world. When Eli takes pity on an orphaned boy and gives him money they’ve taken, Charlie reminds him, ‘“I am against this…You are throwing your money away”’, and it is a familiar sentiment from the tougher brother, once the reader becomes acquainted with these set-pieces. Charlie is a moral absolutist; cause and effect and circumstance are an irrelevancy to him. But the more thoughtful Eli, made more thoughtful by our intrusion into his inner considerations, sees the sense in connecting chains of events, and the novel is full of simple but subtly woven threads of that kind. It is following them – their implications as well as origins –which makes the novel most rewarding.
On a very immediate level though, the novel is about murder and money. deWitt, it feels, wants the novel to be more glamorous than it really needs to be, and his lucid prose, often incredible (one of the best descriptions of death you’ll ever read – a man’s face ‘transformed to a ridiculous mask of agony and surprise and, I thought, a degree of insult’) is nonetheless undermined by quick, paragraph long chapters and attempts to hurtle through events in a continuing reminder that, whatever happens, this novel’s focus is finding and killing a man called Hermann Kermit Warm, and perhaps a little less about the character of the men who are hired to kill him.
In that way, the novel lets itself down, and while comparisons with the Coen Brothers have abounded because of the slightly light-hearted approach the novel takes toward inquiry and the geographical similarity of The Sisters Brothers and their critically acclaimed film No Country for Old Men, it is more the shortness of the chapters, the tendency to glide over events at times, which marks the book out as cinematic in some way.
Cinematic here is not a compliment, though. Eli is an interesting character, his exchanges with his brother the most interesting aspects of the novel, and the prose best when it is allowed time to develop.
In truth this would be a better novel at 600 pages than at the 325 it comprises. That’s because the journey, and its detours and philosophical leanings, is far more exciting and thought provoking than the climax of the journey, the meeting with Warm. Then the book seems to move just a little too quickly, like deWitt really did intend their tracking and finding him to be purely a plot device through which he could utilise these character’s philosophical voices (here the historical setting really is for plot, too, and superficial) so that when they do reach that climax, he wants to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Even so, The Sisters Brothers is a good, entertaining novel. It isn’t a great one, but one that will be remembered from time to time, with a kind of perplexity and fondness.