Every now and then you come across back-cover blurb that seems entirely to miss the point of a novel even whilst praising it. What’s unusual about Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, in which two cowboy assassins trek from Oregon to California in pursuit of a man’s life, is that it has six excerpts of advance praise quoted on the rear of its very handsome jacket, and that most of them refer in some way to how funny the book is, when it should more properly be characterised as a tragedy.
In one sense, this is an attempt to encapsulate the strange thing which deWitt does to the western form in the course of his novel. In recent years, the western has been rendered brutal, in an attempt to recognise it from the cosy memory of She Tied A Yellow Ribbon, or even the mannerist darkness of The Searchers: from Deadwood to Cormac McCarthy, we have been given cowboys foul-mouthed and violent, all amorality and bleak pragmatism. These treatments haven’t so much abandoned the western’s central conflict – between wildness and civilisation, individuals and the community – as they have complicated and made the ultimate outcomes not just ambivalent in the way of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but outright objectionable. The Sisters Brothers doesn’t eschew this dynamic, either; but it adds an almost Beckettian strangeness to proceedings, making manifest the western’s eternally metaphoric potential.
Eli and Charlie Sisters, sent out into the wilderness by the shadowy Commodore in order to wreak Old Testament vengeance on a man who has wronged their paymaster, ride on clapped-out horses into a weirdly featureless diorama of nameless weeping men, effectless witchwomen, and old sailors of portent. That this voyage is narrated by Eli, the larger, more conscientious, brother – whose compassionate, neurotic, angrily suppressed and frustrated perspective is consistently and convincingly presented – does not render this journey less peculiar. Eli may have a matter-of-fact style, a broad mind which can encompass and imagine a range of experiences; he may lack his brother’s superstition, and not balk at exiting a witch’s house by the door; and he may feel sadness each time he or his brother murder someone, harbouring increasingly less secretive ambitions for the bourgeois comforts of managing a general store; but his habit of laying things on the line gently and precisely places into the foreground the alien quality of the brothers’ existence, and of that of those around them.
Perhaps this is where all those ‘hilarious’ accolades come from: at one point, for instance, Eli orders a half-portion of beef with vegetables instead of potatoes, as a reaction to sudden concern about his weight (a woman has rejected him, not for the first time); the barkeep simply cannot understand the request, and Eli’s careful, well-timed narration of this clash of cultures offers a good deal of knockabout humour. At the same time, Eli is a killer, wont to lose his temper and pull the trigger, and there is a constant tension in even the most innocuous of his exchanges: where his brother, Charlie, will almost always first resort to killing, Eli’s murders seem more irregular, and therefore somehow scarier. “The loss of control does not frighten me so much as embarrass me,” he confides. [pg. 107]
These are two men trapped despite their nobler instincts within the western mode – a mode expertly evoked by prose which deWitt works up into the sort of formal vernacular with which viewers of Deadwood will be familiar. Even this novel’s civilising impulse, Eli himself, can only temporarily repress his baser urges; the most civilised man in the novel is also its deadliest, the crimelord known only as the Commodore. When the brothers abandon their profession for the benefits of communal effort, these efforts come to naught and they lose spectacularly rather than gain; when they discuss their family life, it is as the site of a battleground rather than a model for a broader society; when men in this novel are at their most ingenious (and it is almost always men – women are given significant voices but not ones upon which they are often allowed to act), they are also about to tumble. In this, we see something of Marcel Theroux’s future-western, Far North: those things which are most complicated break most badly.
“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives,” says a man on his deathbed to Eli. “Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood – weak blood, diluted – and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.” [pg. 295] The reason for this failure may well be found in a question Eli asks himself in one way or another several times during the novel – “Why do I relish this reversal to animal?” [pg. 246] – and herein lies the tragedy of The Sisters Brothers, of the western, of America: its characters are capable of much more, but first they must accept responsibility for what will likely be huge failure. Thus is the dirty work of the ‘civilising impulse’.
The Sisters Brothers says all this and more in the context of a rollicking picaresque, with a first-person voice properly characterised and characterising and with, admittedly, a good number of laughs along the way. It seems almost too fun a novel to make the Booker’s shortlist tomorrow – but it absolutely should.