Here is the second part of my new "read and review" tactic, designed to slow down my book-buying habit. I bought this book recently after being sucked in by an ad in the pages of the Granta journal.
"If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick de Witt's bloody, darkly funny western The Sisters Brothers,” said The Los Angeles Times. It was this comment (as well as the cool cover) - which made me read de Witt's book. Unfortunately, it also meant I entered the novel with entirely inappropriate expectations. I soon realised that The Sisters Brothers resembles McCarthy in so far as it is set in the American West, has a few violent episodes and explores different relationships between American men. But while de Witt’s style is “declarative” in the of vein of many (most?) male American writers, it certainly doesn’t approach the linguistic acrobatics achieved by McCarthy in all or any of his works. That said, The Sisters Brothers does have other strengths in its own right - it's just taken me a few weeks to realise them.
I actually found that the voice of Eli Sisters, narrator of The Sisters Brothers, echoed Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968) more than it did any of McCarthy’s characters. This similarity alone suggests that de Witt's novel is dryly humorous – and it is. The Sisters Brothers is the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired hitmen: Eli is the ostensible "good guy," frequently racked with guilt about the murders he has committed, and longing to be a better man; Charlie is the brutal killer, who cares only about alcohol and fast horses. They are chasing a man named Hermann Kermit Warm across the 19th century American West, and yet of course, the goldrush interferes in their activities, and they end cautiously befriending Warm after he reveals his a trick to making millions from gold panning. The humour occurs in the way the brothers speak to each other, and some of the situations they find themselves in - which revolve around killing other bad guys, stealing horses, crushing on women, panning gold with Warm, etc.
Mostly, though, the de Witt is at his funniest - and most moving - when he is at his most insightful. The novel is loaded with incredible moments of self-awareness and understanding on the part of Eli Sisters. It's through these moments that de Witt's incredible knack for articulating the ways in which human motivations and desires actually work is revealed. Most heart-breaking, perhaps, is when Eli admits to himself how much he loves and desires validation from his brother, whilst at the same time realising that Charlie will never actually love him as deeply or self-sacrifically as he desires. This realisation is particularly important, because it is due to Eli's love for his brother that Eli has stayed in the killing business so long: he could not bear to see his brother shot dead, so he sticks around to protect Charlie, even though he hates the lifestyle. It's heartwarming to go through this journey of emotional discovery with Eli, and learn with him how valuable it is to one's own sense of identity to treat people - and oneself - with honesty.
Like many a Western, the narrative trajectory of The Sisters Brothers is predictable, in the sense that it has an ending in which everything you want as a reader comes true. Eli achieves redemption through his choice to abandon a life of killing in favour of a reunion with his long-lost mother and, presumably, a more “moral” lifestyle. Charlie, the more brutal of the pair, gets his come-uppance in the form of an injury (his shooting-arm is amputated). Eli doesn’t even have to choose probity over his brother, as his Charlie's physical injury leaves him totally in the care of his brother. Eli has his cake and gets to eat it! Yay for warm and fuzzy endings and family reunions!
But the happy main character did not result in a happy reader - for me, at least. I was actually quite disappointed that it was so easy to see what was coming. In fact, the ending was so expected that I wondered if I were missing something (especially since the novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year, which suggests that at least some important people thought it merit-worthy). It crossed my mind that perhaps de Witt’s story arc was no cliché at all, but actually a parody of the similarly easy endings of the Western dime novels from the early 1900s. And then I wondered if de Witt’s western was a subversion of contemporary darker Western novels (such as McCarthy’s) which had already subverted the early Westerns! A subversion of subversion! Occurring in a way that was invisible to me! And then I thought: I am thinking myself in circles. It may not be Cormac McCarthy, but De Witt’s novel is a fun, clever read, knotted with a few golden insights about male bonding and desire. And that’s it. And that’s a great thing.