Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Allow me to join the chorus of readers to heap praise onto this second novel by Patrick Dewitt. The Sisters Brothers won a trophy case-worth of awards here in Canada following its publication in 2011 – including the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize, and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour – and with good reason. The book is a “western” in the sense that it is set in the United States in middle of the 19th century and has two cowboy-like characters travelling across the territory on horseback, but it is, obviously, so much more, too.

Charlie and Eli Sisters, the novel’s titular brothers, are two hitmen working for a gangster-like figure known simply as “the Commodore.” The brothers’ latest assignment is to track across the country to California to a kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. A second man, Henry Morris, has been sent on ahead to gather information about Warm and to help guide the Sisters brothers to his location. But things go awry when they discover that Warm is in possession of a chemical formula that reveals the location of gold in riverbeds, and the brothers and Morris decided to join Warm in his pursuit of gold rather than kill him. But it is soon revealed that the formula is highly toxic, and in a tense, highly stylized climax, the Sisters brothers barely escape the formula’s grip with their lives.

Of course, like any western, the real pleasure here is the journey rather than the destination. The meat of this novel involves the various adventures the brothers have as they travel to California – adventures that oscillate between the lightly comic and the grossly violent. I’m not particularly well-versed in the western genre, but even I could spot the elements of homage that this novel pays to True Grit – including scenes involving violence against a horse, and a series bumbling moments involving gun fights.

Indeed, this novel draws a lot of its power from its liberal use of light humour: I was especially amused when Eli meets a young woman at a hotel on the road to California with whom he wants to have relations, but she tells him he is too fat for her to find attractive. So he proceeds to go on a diet, which leads to a couple of humorous scenes in a saloon as he tries to order a “lighter” meal. For a ruthless killer, Eli is charmingly insecure about his appearance, and he has even taken up a new-fangled invention called a toothbrush, which also leads to a few comic moments.

The Sisters Brothers may indeed attain “instant classic” status here in Canada. It’s a novel that wears its humour and its violence well. DeWitt’s writing is sharp, clever, incisive and fearless. This novel will find its way to many readers for many years to come.

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