Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The old west should be a fertile ground for novelists, it is, after all a somewhat uncharted history - a pre-history in many ways before official history gets written. Hollywood inevitably realised this a long time ago. Yet though there's a healthy store of genre Westerns,its not often that you'll find a Western up for a literary prize.

Patrick DeWitt's Booker shortlisted "The Sisters Brothers" is a first person picaresque as two killer brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (hence the somewhat awkward title), begin their latest job for their employer, the shadowy "Commodore." As they are killers their job is a simple one, to go to San Francisco to kill a man called Herman Kermit Warm. Along the way, in the tradition of the picaresque, they encounter odd characters, find themselves in various scrapes and incidents. A heady mix of "Candide" and "As I Lay Dying" would give you a good idea of what the trip is like. Our narrator, Eli, is no Pangloss though, rather he sees this as the worst of possible worlds, where good things are unlikely to happen, money comes and goes, and the killing goes on, as inevitable as any other job. That he and his brother are good at it - the cold-blooded Charlie being adept at whipping up the temper of the milder Eli to make them a formidable killing team. Only now and then, when they mention who they are, do we realise that the Sisters Brothers are notorious across the land. It is this contrast between their bloody profession and Eli's underplayed narrating, which makes the novel such a comic gem. He may be a reluctant killer, but he doesn't doubt his calling. Instead, as they head to their destination, with the Commodore promoting his brother to lead man, and his new horse, Tub, a sorry specimen, Eli begins to come to a new consciousness about his life. Along the way he removes himself from his brother's drinking and whoring to speak to a woman or two, takes advice on dental hygiene from a dentist he meets along the way and begins to think of a better life.

Yet this is no moral tale. DeWitt's west is a scabrous one, with the Californian gold rush in the background as the symbol of man's greed and venality. There are no cowboys in this tale, and only a few sorry indians, yet we get a good sense of the febrile world of 1851, with the speed of change being accelerated as thousands head west. It is a story of stories, and so used are we to the modern novel's self-absorbed narrative, that it takes a while to appreciate these stop offs and digressions. Even in the last part of the novel, where they have found their prey, there is time for another campfire where Warm tells them his own sorry story. The beauty of the book though is Eli's telling of it. He's a winningly amoral narrator, and him and his brother's affection for each other is touching. Also, this is becoming their last job, as the reality of their life as hired assassins comes to bear,first on Eli, and later his brother.

In a review in the Guardian, Jane Smiley is utterly puzzled by the novel, and seems somewhat horrified by its casual violence. Perhaps that's not surprising as her bloodless books are almost the opposite of the carefree romp you find here. Yet it's surprising, amongst the welter of good reviews for this year's Booker list to find this negative one for what, to me, is by far the best of the bunch I've read so far.

Eli's voice is pitch perfect throughout, a growling, lightly accented Boswell, chronicling with humour and a growing self-awareness their travels and travails. Of the four first person narratives I've read so far from the 2011 Booker shortlist this book is not only by far the funniest, but also the only one that I'd recommend to friends; for as hackneyed as the picaresque might be as a form, this hardly matters when DeWitt gives us a new double act worthy of Vladimir and Estragon or Pangloss and Candide. Though his characters and situations are all grotesques, the writing throughout is superb, and there's a moral tale underpinning the violence that would be worthy of Thornton Wilder. A book that has no designs on the reader other than to entertain, the book is nonetheless much more than just an entertainment.


Anonymous said...

their is time for another campfire= "there" is time

Adrian Slatcher said...

Sadly my blog can't afford an editor :)