336 Pages, HarperCollins Publisher
Review by J.S. Colley
The Sisters Brothers is a genre-bending western that was short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It didn’t win. I can’t say if this is just or not, as I haven’t read any of the other books on the list, but this book was certainly worthy.
I’ll warn you there will be spoilers later on in this review. So, I’ll pause here to tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My one problem was a mild dissatisfaction with the ending or, rather, the events leading up to the ending. It is a minor problem, and something I can’t quite articulate. Perhaps the answer will come to me while writing this review. I recommend the book. It is a noir western that contains some wickedly deadpan humor. I think it was a reviewer from the Los Angeles Times that said this would be the outcome if Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor.
Set in the American west in 1851, the novel is about the notorious assassin brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters. They are hired guns for the mysterious Commodore, and their current assignment is to kill Hermann Kermit Warm because the Commodore claims he has stolen something that belongs to him.
I found a vague similarity to Of Mice and Men – two brothers, one a simpleton, the other his protector – but, in this novel, it is the simple-minded brother who is the narrator. Little else about this book reminds me of the classic, but I wonder if the author didn’t take a kernel of his idea from that book.
The novel starts out with Eli Sisters, the narrator, contemplating horses, or his lack of an adequate one. No good western should be without horses, and this book is chocked full of them. But, unlike other westerns, this book doesn’t treat them with gratuitous reverence.
At one point, Eli’s poor horse has his eye scooped out with a spoon because of infection. It seems gruesome – and it is – but it is made less so because Eli does it out of dedication to the animal. Or as much dedication as he’s capable of.
The story is Eli’s inner journey. It’s about the contradictions of life, where the dumb can sometimes be smart; how even the most simple-minded person can have something worthwhile to say, or can have an original idea; and that sometimes the protected becomes the protector – that roles change. We are not always just one thing.
The Sisters Brothers is written with plainness and humor. The subtle humor can be seen in the following exchange between the brothers. When an opportunity comes along to trade in Eli’s old horse for a better one, Charlie says:
“You’ve had a tough time with Tub, I’ll not deny it. A happy coincidence, this horse just walking up to meet you. What will you call him? What about, Son of Tub?”
Most of the book is made up of the brothers’ trek to meet up with Henry Morris, the front man who is to find Hermann Kermit Warm so the brothers can do their ill deed. Along the way, they meet many interesting and bewildering characters: a dentist who has failed at everything else and introduces Eli to the wonders of tooth powder and brush; a distraught, crying man that they meet more than once; an abandoned hapless boy with another ill-fated horse; and a gypsy that may or may not have put a curse on the Eli.
Along the way there is also much killing, for a variety of reasons. After going into town to get help for a spider bite that Eli has received, Charlie summarizes the randomness, or providence, of it all, as if there is no control over the killings: “…it is a spider to blame for the early demise of your group. A woolly, fat-bottomed spider in search of warmth – here is the cause of your deaths.”
The crux of the novel is that Eli is tired of the killing life. He has started to contemplate the moral question. This puts a drag, a tug, on the brothers’ relationship and provides the dramatic tension.
The brothers finally make it to San Francisco, where they are to meet Morris, but he’s nowhere to be found. During their search, they meet a man walking down the road petting a chicken and strike up a conversation. The man goes on to say: “My feelings about San Francisco rise and fall with my moods. Or is it that the town alters my moods, thus informing my opinions? Either way, one day it is my true friend, a few days after, my bitterest enemy.”
The brief description of San Francisco during the gold rush makes me wonder if the influx of people during that frenzied time didn’t leave an indelible mark on the city, and California in general. Here are Eli’s thoughts:
“Men desiring a feeling of fortune; the unlucky masses hoping to skin or borrow the luck of others, or the luck of a destination. A seductive notion, and one I thought to be wary of. To me, luck was something you either earned or invented though strength of character. You had to come by it honestly; you could not trick or bluff your way into it.”
Nothing is ever easy for the brothers, and so, when they go to the hotel to ask about Morris, the proprietress is loath to hand over the diary he unwittingly left behind. They resort to their usual methods of persuasion to garner the diary. It provides them with a clue to where they might find Warm and Morris, and to the Commodore’s real motivations for having Warm killed.
Here is where the spoiler comes in, so stop reading now if you haven’t read the book yet. I don’t give everything away, but enough to give you warning.
Once they finally find the other pair, the story takes a twist. The brothers realize the Commodore lied to them. Warm didn’t steal anything. In fact, it is the Commodore who wants to steal from Warm. Morris has already learned this and has turned his back on the Commodore to take up with Warm. But what are the brothers to do? They do what they generally do; let it play out and deal with things as they come.
The Commodore is after Warm’s secret chemical formula for a solution that promises to reveal gold hidden in the bottom of streams. The brothers decide against killing Warm and become partners with the two men. They will help cull the gold from the river in exchange for a share of what they find.
The chemical solution works. They do find gold, but things go terribly wrong. And here is the point of my discontent. Charlie makes a critical error during the process. The mistake seems out of character. Although Charlie appears reckless at times, his action seems utterly thoughtless and without proper motivation. It is an action the author does not explain to my satisfaction.
The reader could take this error as Charlie’s subconscious desire to get out of the business. Even with all the gold in the world, he’ll never be free of the killing life, unless he rids himself of the one thing that makes him who he is: his gun hand. But the reader is not given enough insight into the motivations behind Charlie’s careless action to come to this conclusion, and I believe this is the reason the ending seemed flat to me.
While I find some of the brothers’ behavior abhorrent, the author made me care about them. There was always humor to temper the morbidity and gruesomeness, and Eli’s voice was delightful. The elements of magical realism sprinkled throughout add to the intrigue and poetry of the story.
Even with the one minor criticism, I found The Sisters Brothers to be an excellent bit of writing and a delight to read.