Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick de Witt
Published 2011

From the opening chapter, this story of two hired guns on a road trip to California smells slightly funky. You can tell right away this isn't a Zane Gray western or another version of The Horse Whisperer. The characters they meet are all a little odd, or even completely bonkers – the leery old voodoo woman, a weeping man, the prospector who drinks mud, a small boy who is abused and then abandoned by his family and a mysterious clairvoyant girl who poisons dogs. De Witt throws in these seeds of the bizarre into the gritty dirt and mud of the old frontier.
The plot is a classic road trip set-up and for most of the novel the two brothers, Eli and Charlie, spend their time getting themselves into, and narrowly escaping from, various kinds of trouble. Quick to pull their guns, they kill almost without thinking and the action is brutal and vivid, although always filtered through a lens of stylised prose and comedy. Like, after callously leaving a wet, naked boy and his demented horse to their doom, Eli thinks to himself, 'Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.'
The writing here is beautiful and always slightly off-kilter. The characters use educated language, no 'dang it', or 'get my gun Pa' type stuff here. Charlie calls over to Eli at one point, 'there is something in the air, a fortuitous energy'. It reminded me of a good Coen brother's film, the hilarious dialogue, stylised violence and pilfering of historical elements.
I've seen responses to this book that question the lack of landscape or historical detail, but this is a novel about character and at it's heart, a stylish black comedy. A lengthy description of Sierra Nevadas just wouldn't fit here and the history is a backdrop. Eli and Charlie don't fit the romantic notions of cowboys on the range. They are cold, hard killers, who live in their own tiny and deluded universes. I'm not saying this novel isn't rich in sensory detail, it is. At times you can almost taste the dirt, sweat and blood of a time and place that was truly wild.
Eventually they arrive in San Francisco at the height of the gold-rush. The city is overrun with  obsessed and possessed people, going slowly crazy with gold-fever. Eli and Charlie with their skewed moral values fit in nicely and the mission takes an unexpected turn. It is at this point that the story really comes alive and it seems less like a bunch of random events on a road trip and becomes something complex with causes and effects. This is needed at this point as some of the scenes seem unrelated and not particularly pulling the story forward in the early stages.
The fraternal relationship between Eli and Charlie is always shifting and changing and sits at the core of the novel. As Eli moves through the story he starts to fall out of his little universe and sees Charlie and himself from a new perspective. He begins to question their choices and occupation, not so much with a conscience, but with a desire for things to just be different. This aspect seemed spot on and is what the made the novel real and compelling for me.
This is one of the most entertaining reads I've had for awhile and I would completely recommend it to anyone who likes their novels a little bit strange, a little bit stylised and touched with dark comedy. I'm sure this novel will go down well with the younger age-bracket. The Sisters Brothers reminds me of Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. Like Pierre, De Witt seems able to show America through the lens of an 'outsider' and then extract something fresh and inventive from those well-worn wagon trails.

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