336 pages, Ecco
Ever since fighting my way through Yann Martel's “Life of Pi” I've made a concerted effort to avoid reading anything nominated for the Booker prize. I have no doubt that this has meant I have missed out on some fantastic reads in the past decade but I've grown increasingly weary of hyperbole surrounding such books and I tend to give them a wide berth. This isn't to say that I am averse to good literature... it is more that I prefer to make my own mind up rather than being told I should enjoy a book simply because a panel of judges feel it is noteworthy.
When it was announced that my reading group would be tackling Patrick DeWitt's Man Booker prize shortlisted novel “The Sisters Brothers”, my heart sank a little. I decided to give it a go because I'm a fan of the Western genre (for reasons utterly beyond me)... that and the fact that I didn't want to look a twat at our next meeting. Funnily enough, most of the lovely folks in my reading group felt completely the opposite. They would actively seek out a shortlisted novel but would ordinarily shy away from a Western. Hey ho, variety is the spice of life and all that.
Fancy prizes and played out genres aside, “The Sisters Brothers” is a great book. Written with both humour and intelligence, the novel manages to be thoroughly entertaining without pandering to the expectations of its readers. There is enough gun-play and bloodshed to satisfy the action-junkies but those with more cerebral tastes will find DeWitt's witty characterisation and use of narrative red herrings equally pleasing.
The novel follows the misadventures of the Sisters brothers, notorious assassins and squabbling siblings. Charlie, the older brother, is a cold-blooded killer whose total lack of regard for other people borders on sociopathic. His younger brother Eli, the novel's narrator, is a more sensitive soul who is prone to questioning their bloody, violent life. As much as Eli finds his career choice distasteful, his dedication to his brother means that he is obliged to carry on killing. When the brothers are tasked with killing a prospector called Hermann Kermit Warm, they find themselves on a journey across Gold Rush California in search of their elusive prey. Of course, things don't go smoothly for them and very soon, the sensitive Eli finds himself questioning the purpose of their task.
DeWitt's novel is, at its heart, a traditional Western. He clearly understands and appreciates the genre and ensures that he hits all the key notes in the course of the story. Heavy drinking, quick-draw duels, saloon brawls... DeWitt doesn't skimp on the traditional clichés of the Wild West. However, they are filtered through a wonderfully knowing, ironic lens that helps the book to feel fresh and exciting even when walking a well-worn path. Heavy drinking leads to crippling hangovers that leave the brothers dry-retching in the saddle. The brothers engage in plenty of gun battles but they don't play by the rules, drawing early and even shooting their opponents in the back. As with so many Westerns, it is a men's world and women are sidelined to minor supporting characters. DeWitt goes with this cliché but towards the end of the novel he subjects the brothers to a humiliating beating at the hands of a group of angry prostitutes, Indeed, DeWitt's playful take on the traditional Western novel subverts all expectations whilst managing to remain within the boundaries of the genre. We fully expect the brothers to renounce their violent ways at the end of the story and to look to a more positive future on the right side of the law. What we don't expect is the way in which DeWitt engineers a situation that achieves this without having to resort to an unrealistic shift in the characters' moral standards (or lack of them).
“The Sisters Brothers” is a violent book. There is a high body count and those of a more sensitive nature might find the rather blasé approach to death a little bit crass. Once again, this is the author playing with the genre, working within it whilst simultaneously mocking its flaws. Violence and cruelty are commonplace in Western novels so DeWitt ups the ante with judicious use of dark black humour. When Eli's horse is mauled by a bear, he pays a stablehand five dollars to “take care” of the horse's wounded eye. What follows is a grotesque amateur eye-gouging operation followed by the drawn-out death of the poor creature. It shouldn't make us laugh nor should the confused response of Eli make him seem endearing... but it does. Just as we laughed with revulsion when John Travolta accidentally blew Marvin's head off in “Pulp Fiction”, so too we chuckle at the poor horse as it walks round in circles before suffering the undignified death of stumbling off a cliff.
“The Sisters Brothers” is a fantastic picaresque Western novel. Like all great parodies, it is respectful of the genre it is poking fun at and is also able to make us think while we are laughing out loud. Most impressive of all is the way in which DeWitt makes us care about the central characters even though we are in no doubt that they are truly horrible people. In a genre which is built on clichés and one-dimensional characterisation, DeWitt has crafted a genuine piece of literature. Yeee-hah, indeed.
Hereward L.M. Proops