Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Sisters Brothers

has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The L.A. Times called Patrick De Witt's novel a "bawdy cowboy noir," which just about covers it. I read it in manuscript this January when it was called "The Warm Job." (The titular brothers are Eli and Charlie, hit men for a man they call "the Commodore" who wants a man named Hermann Kermit Warm dead.)

Here's what I said about it at the time:

There is a lot to like here.  The story is episodic and reminiscent in some ways of Little Big Man, only taking place in a more focused context.  Eli and Charlie seem to run across a whole cross-section of Western types (the diligent Chinese house boy, the luckless prospectors, the soiled doves and so forth) that Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) would recognize.  There’s also a tinge of superstition and the paranormal (the weird gypsy) that unsettles us a bit.  What the story mostly reminds us of is a graphic novel, even though this is a fully fleshed tale that doesn’t need illustrations.

First of all, the dialogue is absolutely great.  From the first pages of Charlie and Eli’s argument, we can see a seamless transfer of dialogue from page to screen.  (The comparison would be to Tarantino’s hit men discussing “Le Cheese Royale” in Pulp Fiction.)  Eli’s horse-trading when he sells the Indian horse that simply walks up to him is reminiscent of Mattie’s dickering in True Grit, and there are other places where we suspect the writer might have been influenced by the Charles Portis novel, if not the movie of the same name.

We meet a lot of characters on our way from Oregon City to the Bay Area where their quarry is located.  All of these characters come to vivid life off the page and some are particularly likable.  Eli is our storyteller and he is the romantic of the duo, always falling in love with the women who cross their path.  He’s also the conscience of the two and it upsets him when Charlie goes off and kills people (and their horses) when Eli thinks he didn’t have to.  Charlie is a cynical sort and definitely the alpha male, but it looks like Eli is the brains of the outfit.

Even though we only meet the Sisters’ mother at the very end of the story, she’s a presence throughout, having let them know she doesn’t really want to see them while they’re doing their evil work.  The same is true of the Commodore.  He’s such a pathetic little man smoking his cigar in his bath that we can’t quite believe he wields so much power.  (The opposite is true for the Mother. She is sickly, possibly dying, and yet…she is formidable.)

The various men and women and children who are in the book live in their scenes and sometimes in the memories of the characters and readers (and audiences) will find their brief encounters leave their mark. 

There is a lot of bloodshed here—some of the violence is senseless, some of it purposeful—but there’s not a lot of action.  The story is a road trip movie, like True Grit or Road to Perdition.  Each step the brothers journey takes them deeper into the heart of darkness (another road trip story), and we actually begin to wonder if they’ve passed over a threshold into a realm that is beyond reality at points. 

As Eli makes choices that bring him and his brother back from the brink—whether Charlie wants to be saved or not--the psychological underpinnings of this character-driven tale become clear.  The details of the western world that’s the backdrop to the tale seem authentic and well-researched.  They also give a lot of life to the novel, which is a quick and easy entertainment.  

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