Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

If you had told me that I would read a Western, chock full of violence and killing, for my book club and would thoroughly enjoy it, I would wonder if you knew me at all. And yet that is exactly what happened with this Booker Prize short-listed book. I really did not want to read it but because book club should be about pushing your personal reading boundaries, I decided to give it a try.  Now I'm sure I'll read whatever deWitt come up with next because his The Sisters Brothers was such an oddly pleasing novel to read.

Charlie and Eli Sisters are contract killers living in Oregon. Hired by the Commodore to track Hermann Kermit Warm and kill him for stealing something from the Commodore, the two brothers, whose names strike fear in any who hear it, strike out towards Sacramento and the last place Warm was seen.  They don't care what he's stolen or really anything at all about him other than that they get to kill him.  Along their long journey, they meet (and often kill) a whole host of other characters, some who deserve it (evil) and some who don't (unlucky bumblers). And it is through their interactions with others, and their decision of what to do with Warm when they finally catch up with him, that show the reader who they are at their cores. Eli is quiet and naive with some semblance of a conscience while Charlie is more a straight up cold-blooded killer greedy for what he thinks he deserves.

Narrated by the childlike Eli, the reader is given access to his inner humanity instead of just his outside appearance and reputation. Considered simple by his more psychopathic brother, he details their encounters with others and his growing realization not only that they might be doing wrong but that his brother is using Eli's easily sparked rage for his own purposes. Although they are a team, Eli acts as much out of filial duty to Charlie as anything and the brothers' differences are legion as the book progresses. Eli loves food and wants to settle down with any woman who will have him, respectable or prostitute while Charlie loves nothing so much as whiskey and killing.  One brother is a rather lovable (or perhaps pitiable) doofus while the other is more hardened and ruthless although both are unquestionably killers.

The story is undeniably violent but is wonderful despite that. DeWitt has a light hand throughout, leavening the darkness with humor and funny little details. His Eli is constantly dieting and is delighted by the minty taste of the tooth powder he discovers in the course of the brothers' adventures, not exactly your stereotypical gunslinger.  His feelings and actions toward his plodding horse are misguided and gruesome but somehow also touching.  The structure of the novel is mostly straightforward but there are two intermission pieces that are a bit confusing, completely different in tone from the rest of the story, and seem to contribute little to nothing to the story. Readers will find themselves feeling surprisingly sympathetic with characters who should by all rights be unlikable and although the ending is a bit quick, this was a fun and entertaining reading experience. If you like adventure stories with killing, or even if, like me,you don't, this is one to pick up and enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. The biggest problem I had with this book was convincing others to give it a try! No description I could give captured accurately enough to be appealing to friends who would never read a 'western'.

    Eli really was a sweetie, wasn't he? But that poor horse!!


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