Thursday 15 September 2011

'Shame and blood and degradation'

The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt

I wasn't terribly thrilled on the publication of the long-list for this year's Booker Prize, not because it simply contained the usual suspects (although a few of them were in fact there with only Julian Barnes making the cut to the short-list) but because the novels I hadn't heard of previously didn't really get me excited on the whole. Only a couple I hadn't already registered caused my ears to prick and foremost amongst those was Patrick deWitt's Western novel about two sibling killers, Eli and Charlie Sisters. Now, I hate westerns as a general rule but two genuinely great books I've read since starting this blog, Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece Blood Meridian and Ron Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, have been set in that period and the prospect of something rather more in the mould of a Coen brothers movie tickled my fancy. It may not do the same to you, the Coen's are a bit divisive it seems, so if you're not keen on that short description then it's pretty safe to say this isn't the, now short listed, title for you, and whilst I don't expect to see it scooping the prize there was enough to make it a curiously enjoyable tale of murderous mayhem.

The novel is narrated by Eli, the younger and fatter of the two brothers whom we find traumatised by the death of his previous horse in a fire and slightly dispirited by its replacement 'Tub'. Whilst Eli mopes his dominant brother Charlie has stolen a march on him, being made de facto leader of their two-man operation by their boss, The Commodore. Their latest job is to head over to San Francisco in pursuit of Herman Kermit Warm, a man they must kill though they have little inkling of the real reason why (not that they really care). The two brothers have long been in the killing business ('You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability. In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a man's life entrusted to me'), beginning in fact when Charlie shot their abusive father before taking his mother away to get her broken arm mended, that arm 'bent like a chevron. Like a shotgun opened for loading.' We quickly gather through his flat narration  that Eli may not have quite the same verve for it as his brother and that he is a man looking for a way out of the groove life has placed him in. The two brothers journey through Oregon and California towards gold-rush era San Francisco, an odyssey that brings them into contact with people just as odd and sometimes dangerous as they are.

An odyssey should have an element of Fate about it and there are plenty of moments where the brothers discuss their antics, ponder on the hand Life has dealt, even worry that they may have been cursed. Just as it seems that Eli's faithful horse Tub may be about to meet his maker, especially when Providence places an impressive replacement free of charge into his hands, Eli rewards that faithfulness by keeping hold of his one-eyed mount. What, wonders his brother, 'will become of the man who shuns Providence?' Faithfulness is something of a theme, its strength tested in times of violence and disorder, and the bond between these two brothers is constantly under stress from their differing personalities. Charlie is a man defined by his seniority and easy violence whereas Eli manages to combine a child-like view with the bulk and latent anger of a dangerous man. It is an unlikely hero who explains to the reader his unique form of stress relief.

I took up my organ to compromise myself. As a young man, when my temper was proving problematic, my mother instructed me to do this as a means of achieving calm, and I have found it a useful practice ever since. Once accomplished I headed back to the river, feeling empty and cold inside but no longer angry. I cannot understand the motivation of a bully, is what it is; this is the one thing that makes me unreasonable.

The dialogue between the two brothers and other characters they meet is what provides the novel with its humour and easy entertainment, even whilst moments of extreme violence provide brutal reminders of the times they live in. Eli's slow journey towards civility is charming; the advent of tooth-cleaning powder, his meeting with a woman in a whorehouse, his desire to save enough money to make a new life; each of these markers show some kind of progress but we always sense that it could be jeopardised at any moment and that his brother may hold control over his course, as indeed he always has.

As they near San Francisco deWitt develops the craziness nicely. The man they have been sent to kill is not what we might have expected, nor the reason for his execution and the plot goes nicely askew in line with the prevailing atmosphere of madness. 'There is a feeling here, which if it gets you, will envenom your very center. It is a madness of possibilities.' observes one character and the particular fever of the gold rush is a potent combination of greed, desperation and escalating violence.

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 through strength of character.

But it also 'isn't enough to be lucky' and the grim conclusion that we have always sensed was our destination isn't long in coming. There is a lot to be said for a read that is just entertaining, and despite the grimness and violence that is what this book feels like after finishing it. But, as I said at the top, in a quest to find the best book of the year the judges might have to find themselves at the other end of the Sisters Brothers loaded pistols for deWitt's novel to prevail.


Max Cairnduff 15 September 2011 at 18:16  

How can you hate Westerns?

That aside, given this year's judging panel I think this is in with a chance. It's one of only two this year I'm really likely to read (Half Blood Blues, though I may read the Barnes I suppose). That doesn't mean I think it's a Booker novel, but then I don't think Booker novels have a chance at the Booker anymore so that may well help it.

Nice review as ever.

Still, don't like Westerns. I'm shocked. That's like not liking puppies and kittens. It's just wrong.

William Rycroft 15 September 2011 at 19:20  

Interesting you should mention Half Blood Blues as that is the other book on the list I fancied and I'm about 50 pages from the end of it as I type. I think it's rather good: great narrative voice, fab dialogue, deftly plotted and really interesting. My favourite of the few I've read so far. That's me ruining its chances of winning. I might give the Barnes a go too.

Westerns are boring. Now let's not fall out before we've even met (more on that soon). Thanks as ever for the comments Max.

Anonymous,  18 September 2011 at 19:32  

Fab Review. I love Westerns generally, and I adored this book - best thing I've read this year (pre-Booker long-listing - I feel smug about that!)

It worked on many levels for me - the obvious Blues Brother/Coen Brothers/Deadwood sheer entertainment value, but also as you identify the sense of fate throughout. Eli was a fantastic narrator too,(love the quote you picked!).

Shona Cook 23 September 2011 at 04:21  

Like you I found this an entertaining read but I’m a bit surprised to see it both on the Booker short list and on the long list for Canada’s Giller Prize.

I have to admit that it does have some relative bad luck in that it is the third western I have read in the past 6 months (the other two being “Blood Meridian” and “True Grit”) and it pales in comparison to those two.

I thought the novel was a pretty formulaic western. We have the two cowboys, frequently as-good-as-brothers, in this case, actual brothers. We have the downtrodden woman with the heart of gold, usually a hooker but in this case, the bookkeeper (though naturally there are hookers here too). We have the trail and the broken, crazy characters along the way. We have the Big Man Who Runs This Town and Everyone In It (twice, two different towns). We have the poor souls, who are smart in all the wrong ways to survive, who are the object of their quest. And we have the trusty, one-eyed horse, the sole object of our lead character’s genuine affection.

Overall, it’s a good story well told but not particularly memorable or notable. I’ve already forgotten the brother’s first names.

William Rycroft 23 September 2011 at 09:12  

Thanks for the comments Annabel and Shona, interesting to read two very different conclusions. I think everyone will agree that this is an entertaining read and that in itself can't be underestimated when thinking about what judges will put through in a competition that demands they read hundreds of books and some of them several times! As I said in my review I'll be surprised if this triumphs, my own personal favourite so far is Half Blood Blues which marries entertainment with something a little more interesting, but I can also think of several books that I've read this year that are better than anything I've read on the Booker list. Not a vintage year for the prize in my opinion.

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