The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
When a frontier baron known as the Commodore orders Charlie and Eli Sisters, his hired gunslingers, to track down and kill a prospector named Herman Kermit Warm, the brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and eventually to Warm’s claim in the Sierra foothills, running into a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlor of drunken floozies, and a gang of murderous fur trappers. Eli’s deadpan narration is at times strangely funny (as when he discovers dental hygiene, thanks to a frontier dentist dispensing free samples of “tooth powder that produced a minty foam”) but maintains the power to stir heartbreak, as with Eli’s infatuation with a consumptive hotel bookkeeper. As more of the brothers’ story is teased out, Charlie and Eli explore the human implications of many of the clichés of the old west and come off looking less and less like killers and more like traumatized young men. (via Goodreads)
I’m going to start off by saying that I didn’t like The Sisters Brothers very much. This came as a surprise to me.
It’s a well-regarded book; in general, but also by reviewers I follow. I like westerns, though I haven’t read that many of them. I like dark comedy. I didn’t think that my expectations were overly-high. I was definitely looking forward to some quirkiness. So, what’s the deal? I’ve spent a couple days trying to figure that out.
I *did* like the voice. Eli Sisters’ narration evokes the time and the place. The first half of the book is part picaresque and part travelogue. It was Eli’s storytelling that kept me reading despite my reservations.
I did realize that I’m not much of a fan of picaresque novels. Actually, I haven’t read many of them. I don’t have anything against lower-class or below-the-law characters, but there is sort of an aggressive grayness to the characters and situations. For example, in the above blurb, seeing Eli and Charlie as traumatized young men is important to the narrative, but I’ve never found that lacking in the supposedly white-hat/black-hat westerns I’ve read.
Eric and I have had some long talks about what makes good plot. If readers want to be surprised by a book, why do formulaic books work? How can you reread a book and still enjoy it? I think there’s a line that needs to be walked between being predictable and offering up the unexpected.
Honestly, at most points in The Sisters Brothers, I had no idea what was going to happen next. That’s not a bad thing. But even at the end, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. No. Clue. And that didn’t work for me. There was very little payoff for most of the quirky elements. I half expected an ending similar in style to The Departed, but no. Also, almost every event held the same weight. Crazy prospector with a chicken? Bead-stringing witch? Tooth powder? All are of seemingly equal importance to the narrative.
So, there it is. Now, on the plus side, I did finish this book and it’s given me a lot to chew on. That is worth something.
Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, HarperCollins (Ecco), 2011
Acquired: Dec. 21, 2014, Amazon
Genre: literary western