on November 8, 2011
"The Sisters Brothers" was written by Patrick DeWitt, a Canadian by birth (1975) hailing from Vancouver Island and who now resides in Portland, Oregon with his wife and son. Mr. DeWitt who finished neither high school nor college has traveled widely and chalks up his writing success to a voracious appetite for reading. This work has been slated as the most current Canadian novel to make numerous literary prize lists. Mr. DeWitt is author to a second novel entitled "Ablutions".
The novel is narrated in the first person by one of the characters. The prose is stilted in a format suggestive of vernacular circa 1850; precise formal diction. Dialog is attributable to the character speaking. The writing is uncomplicated and straight forward.
The plot involves two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, hired assassins who are dispatched by their employer, the "Commodore" to find and kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. The brother's journey takes them from Oregon City to San Francisco where they are to meet the Commodore's scout, a dandy named Henry Morris. Upon their arrival in San Francisco, they discover that Henry Morris and Hermann Warm have tied their allegiances and together have departed for Warm's gold claim. A personal diary, left by Henry Morris leads the brothers to understand why the Commodore wanted to dispatch Warm and why Morris and Warm joined forces; the journal also leads the brothers to the final confrontation with the fugitives and their employer.
This novel was quite an interesting read. It was dark in its plots but designed of humorous situations and characters. The two brothers were strangely opposite and yet lethally compatible. The prose was rife with worldly observations such as this exchange: "To me, luck was something you either earned or invented through strength of character. You had to come by it honestly, you could not trick or bluff your way into it." And so it was that the brothers pushed their luck to the very end.
All in all, I quite liked this novel and I think you will too. It was different; a pleasant change. I recommend you add it to your reading list.
on July 19, 2014
The Sisters Brothers is, by virtue of its cobbling together, a somewhat unique entity. While authors like Cormac McCarthy have painted the world of the stereotypical ‘west’ in unapologetically literary strokes, the blending of genres, approaches, and elements in Patrick DeWitts 2nd novel means that whatever The Sisters Brothers establishes for itself in terms of value, it can at least use novelty to stick in the mind of the reader.
Going through the short, snappy chapters, I found little objection to the style of the book in terms of prose (though some came later), with the exception of the vocabulary and delivery in parts. As seems worryingly to be the case with books I read lately, the first chapter rang almost as tho it was the remainder of an early first draft too precious to be touched. At the opening, the ostensibly simple-minded Eli Sisters tells us that he and his brother “did not believe in naming horses” (5), a subject worth addressing since their previous horses were “immolated”. Right out the gate, the lack of contractions and ten-dollar-word drops don’t fit in with the atmosphere of a Western the reader might expect to find—so, the question becomes, is DeWitt doing this intentionally?
As the book continues, I would argue not, and it’s for that reason that the opening passage sticks out like a sore thumb. The book’s use/disuse of contractions seems wildly inconsistent, and while Eli is eventually shown to at least be somewhat more careful and considerate than the average gunslinger in the frontier days, there’s no explanation for his random bouts of lucidly elevated vocabulary. We’re also perhaps meant to be show, by virtue of his continual first person introspection, that he’s a more sensitive, insightful soul than his brother—but, on the outside, in interactions, he’s typically given shrift as the ‘slow’ one of his fraternal pair.
While inconsistency of a character could be argued as a fleshing out of the complexity of human nature, the jumps and contrast seemed too wide for me to buy the jumbled personality and portrayal as intentional—not that I didn’t enjoy Eli as a character. He makes a mostly outstanding narrator, giving us the focal points in a stripped but meditative fashion, and closing almost every chapter with a too-insightful-to-be-real epigrammatic thought, which nevertheless left me with a thoughtful smile on my face more than not. Lines like “We can all of us be hurt, and no one is exclusively safe from worry and sadness” (50), “I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?” (56), “It is true, I thought. I am living a life” (62), and “I stood a long while… studying my profile, the line I cut in this world of men and ladies” (66) have a poetic ringing to them, and DeWitt employs it to good effect, capping each series of events off with enough insight to pull the reader forward.
Overall, from the perspective of Eli, the book appears to communicate two central themes: one, that life is a series of short, tangentially related happenstance and respective miseries, and two, that the agency of a man is either concrete or ethereal, dependent on perspective. DeWitt grapples with the ideas of chance and fate as principle forces in the book (including a mystifying encounter with a mysterious witch, an event that felt entirely out of place in the book’s primarily realistic setting—the ‘intermission’ sections told in dream-like cloudy revelations felt jarring for similar reasons), but he seems himself uncertain (and Eli as a result) to what extent they exist as real, tangible forces. In the end, it seems as though the narrative is perhaps meant to merely provoke the dissection of these concepts, with the reader coming to their own terms with them at the end of the book.
With the thematics of the narrative aside, however, there are some purely technical and story-related dings in the book’s polished mirror of self-reflection. These primarily present themselves as inconsistencies. At one point, and only one point, DeWitt has Eli address the reader (or the text) directly, as though it’s a story he’s telling—but this viewpoint is never touched on again, nor does it have any substantiation given the story’s delivery elsewhere. On page 185, a letter from a principle character is transcribed ‘verbatim’—but the voice of the character, whom we’re lead to believe is educated, proper, fastidious, and intellectual, is translated in exactly the same voice as Eli, the grim but sympathetic, uneducated gunslinger. Towards the end of the novel’s central conflict, Warm, the character whom the brothers have been chasing the whole book, gives the story of his history in the world, which takes up the better part of twelve pages, with no discernable reason other than to fill space with pointless elucidation delivered so matter-of-factly that it doesn’t even begin to build sympathy for the character in question. And, lastly, as the book comes to a close, the resolution not only feels convoluted, but also dishonest—as though, in service of some inscrutable, sanctimonious moral, DeWitt is tying things up so neatly that they must suffocate—and the reader along with them.
I still found The Sisters Brothers to be an engaging read. The prose, while stilted in some areas, countered any dragging with fast-paced scuffles in some parts and lucid stream-of-consciousness insight in others. Where I found the strings of the narrative arc ultimately unsatisfying, I feel the book’s theme of man’s grapple with agency and against fate to be motivating enough to provoke significant thought, and for that I suppose I can excuse it. Ultimately, The Sisters Brothers is probably worth a read, though I will confess to a mild mystification about its position as a best seller. Perhaps based purely on the novelty of its blended elements and positioning, it hooked onto the intangible X-factor of popular acclaim. It’s certainly not a bad book by any means; just one that leaves me wondering about the way the world determines what sells and what doesn’t. Is it agency, chance, or fate?
on May 11, 2012
Ok I know no praise as high as - I wish to hell I had written this book. What a stunning novel. deWitt does an amazing hat trick of having his story wander all over the place and yet always feel like it is headed somewhere, not at all where you expect it, but somewhere. Early in my writing days I remember writing a scene that served no clear plot purpose but some how added more to the story in a rich way. I thought at the time, I want to do more of this. I have found it hard to mine these serendipitous gold nuggets. deWitt does it with ease, every scene is a revelation. Yes it is a "page turner" but one without a ticking bomb that will destroy civilization if John Action Hero doesn't disarm it. What kept me up way too late reading was the fast moving tapestry of characters. And yes, it has gunfights, and whores, and drinking, and more gunfights, and a one-eyed horse, and a man with a chicken under his arm and the gold rush and so much more. It takes place in the west, but it is not a western, or at least it transcends the genre. Or maybe like the film "Unforgiven" it is a western, just a damn fine one. It is dusty and muddy and bloody and messy and lifelike. Thank you Mr deWitt for reminding me where the bar belongs in my own writing.
on June 13, 2011
Pretty much meets the definition of picaresque; in this case in Gold Rush California and Oregon. Not quite Cowboy Noir (although there is plenty of wanton brutality), there is plenty of humor in the witty dialog and narrative, as well as meaningful observations on family, human connections, etc.
Yes, it owes a lot to Portis' True Grit, and maybe to Deadwood, as well as Faulkner, Twain, McCarthy, etc., etc., but what literature doesn't owe something to its forebears? This is an original and delightful (if you can look beyond the mindless killing, but, along with the language, you have to suspend a little disbelief.) read.
on February 25, 2012
The brothers are a balance of plausible opposites just like a buddy movie. The tone is dark, like all hip novels these days. Paradise is not hip. The inferno is hip. So we are in the inferno. The dialogue is glib and sparse in order to show the derangement of persons from the moral implications of their actions. These days this is called irony. And it is held if high esteem. The abstention from moral examination is considered very folksy and charming. The setting is the west of cowboys. You can tell because there are horses and guns and prostitutes and so forth. So you know you are in the west. You've been here many times before. Each time has been more or less in the formula. The western formula is somewhat variated here. Again in that charming folksy ironic way that you are just going find outrageously funny. But maybe not. Also Charming and folksy will be the maudlin philosophy of the narrator who, apparently absent from any consideration of his violent actions, is given to fine american-type folksy humor. Mark Twain would love this guy! Or maybe not. And actually, don't buy this book. Buy Mark Twain's Autobiography. Its got more humor in five pages than this whole book. Its far more droll, folksy, american, ironic, charming, and its actually funny, its very hip, its completely subversive and quite a bit of it addresses issues of morality and violence directly. So have some fun with your life.
on April 4, 2013
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. An odd Western, written in an engaging style. So engaging, the style drew me willingly all the way to the last page. The Sisters Brothers is a buddy story, which I normally like, but the protagonist is an antihero, which I normally don’t like. (I prefer flawed heroes that I can empathize with.) The main protagonist is one of the two brothers and he can be endearing in his quest for normalcy. For the most part, he is a dullard, but often shows hints of brilliance. This inconsistency was sometimes jarring.
New writers strive for a unique voice, which is creative writing codswallop. Writers who concentrate on telling a good story and then revise until every word moves the story forward will develop a voice. Those who go after voice first, usually end up boring the reader. deWitt has mastered an entertaining style and it makes the story much more enjoyable than a pedestrian account of oftentimes mundane events. The style is also critical to the story because the two brothers are less than appealing characters.
If you like your Westerns raw, violent, and with a touch of redemption, you will like The Sisters Brothers.
on August 23, 2015
The Sisters brothers are essentially the Odd Couple revisited, except they both happen to be cold blooded murderers for hire. One is a psychopath, and the other is a detached observer with all kinds of melancholy remarks about their trade. They work their way from the Northwest down to California during the later years of the gold rush seeking a man who betrayed a wealthy and unscrupulous tycoon. The story centers on what they come to learn about this man, and how it affects their willingness to carry out their assignment. Once that gets resolved, they must get back to their benefactor and report their results. The writing is very good, very few misspellings and no blatant grammar errors. The style is a little slow and plodding but the surprising twists and turns do keep you pushing through to see how the boys make out.
I guess I'd call it a slow motion Western, and that's not meant in a derogatory sense. The author has a unique style and presents the usual cowboy days activities with a different perspective. I liked the book quite a bit and would recommend it to fans of the old West.
on March 1, 2015
Set against the historical backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Patrick DeWitt’s titular heroes are brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters, who are also assassins, on a mission to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. This combination of memorably comic names, historical setting, and tone described within the premise completely encapsulates all one would need to know about this beautifully bizarre novel. Additionally, however, and to even higher distinction, the novel’s picaresque structure is wrought with exceptional creativity that further distinguishes this work from its many contemporary genre peers and deserves very high praise.
Narrated by Eli Sisters, the brothers serve as assassins for the Commodore—an authoritative figure that tasks the boys with jobs requiring more dangerous or fatalistic endings. The task at hand demands the brothers seek out and kill a one Hermann Kermit Warm—a prospector that has apparently stolen from the Commodore at the cost of his life. The novel is told with a picaresque structure of extremely short, yet memorable, narration of the brothers’ adventures and mishaps in their search for Warm across the Western landscape.
Tonally, the novel strikes a very rare and impressive balance between hilariously sharp dialogue and darkly comic situations that slowly navigate toward scenes of heartbreaking tragedy and acute poignancy. The only real tonal parallel that one may suggest is something close to that of the filmic works of the Coen Brothers, though DeWitt’s original voice still separates itself from those exceptional storytellers. Moreover, the tone complements the pacing of this episodic narrative to very impressive results. The book is an undeniable page-turner without ever losing the depth of its characterization or sacrificing any of the various emotional levels at play.
Though the book touches on a number of familiar Western genre staples—from assassins, to Mexican standoffs, to the larger themes of men imposing their morals upon others within a burgeoning civilization—the novel also successfully eschews many of these classical expectations to surprising and thought-provoking results. Despite the brothers’ job title of assassins, and the numerous violent acts that populate the narrative, the characters are imbued with a very touching and moving sense of pathos very unlike those found in the brutal landscapes occupied by traditional Western fiction. There are questions of moral ambiguity explored within this novel to incredibly successful results that bring to mind aspects of contemporary western writer S. Craig Zahler’s revelatory work (my favorite fiction writer: both A Congregation of Jackals and Wraiths of the Broken Land are masterpieces). Specifically, there are interludes wherein the protagonist confronts what may be the Devil/evil incarnate through the form of a little girl that remains one of the book’s most resonant and thought-provoking creations.
The Western genre stands as one of the best prisms for an author’s exploration of those thematic aspects of their obsession in tandem with those central themes to the American narrative at large. Themes of masculinity, spirituality, luck, the cost of success at the sacrifice of a man’s morals—these are all ideas embedded within the myth of American man and which the Western genre often explores through its setting of a terrain caught between civilization and barbaric tribalism. As the best Westerns are capable, The Sisters Brothers offers a fascinating and praiseworthy peak into DeWitt’s version of these central tenets: allowing an new perspective on both those time-honored traditions of the genre and those specific literary realizations brought forth by his singular imagination.
The book jacket describes "The Sisters Brothers" as a book that "pays homage to the classic Western." Stand it on its head is more like it. In the gold rush era, the Sisters Brothers, a pair of hired killers, set out to assassinate a man who appears to have come up with secret formula that readily extracts gold from a creek bed. In the course of their travels across a bleak landscape, they encounter a variety of characters, most of whom are only a shade less murderous, lecherous, greedy, and foul-mouthed than Eli and Charlie Sisters. That is, there is not much delineation between Bad Guys and Good Guys.
The story is narrated by Eli, a classic bumbling sidekick and the constant butt of his brother's cruel jokes. Even though he is a hired gun, he contemplates being a Good Guy, as he tries to be kind to his horse and muses about getting out of the killing business and into the dry goods business. However, his flat, uninflected voice, his emotional subservience to his brother, and his capacity for violent rages it unlikely that he will be anything other than what he already is.
The true Good Guy of this bleakly comic novel may well be Eli's broken-down horse, Tub. The suffering Tub carries Eli through a landscape that is in the throes of a violent rape by human predators in search of gold and power. The horse endures much, including blindness, but he perseveres almost to the end, serving a master who ineffectually tries to respond with some kindness.
That aside, "The Sisters Brothers" offers a cool look at all sorts of mayhem, from the domestic chaos that produces the brothers to the repertoire of killing techniques practiced by avaricious men. It's black humor, and the reappearance of a man who seems to be crying for no reason is a kind of motif for the entire novel.
on November 29, 2013
Why did I read this cowboy tale? I never read cowboy stories.
I started it, wondered why I was reading it, but really couldn't put down this charming book about 2 brothers in the wild west.
It was recommended by a friend who never reads books with violence, but the violence in this book doesn't bother you.
I don't know how to describe it. It's not a great book but it's a very entertaining read that I recommend.
While at the gym today, a bunch of ladies were talking about the Sisters Brothers and every one had enjoyed it.
Two men joined in and the whole group was smiling and laughing about the book.
It sort of creeps up on you...read it.