August 01, 2011

BOOKS: The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt (2011)

I was sitting outside the Commodore's mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie's new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by. I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it? Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.
Now that's a voice that makes me want to keep reading.
That's Eli Sisters speaking at the beginning of The Sisters Brothers, a marvelous dark comic Western. Eli and his brother Charlie have been hired to kill a man, and the novel tells the story of their journey through Gold Rush-era California to find him. They don't meet their victim until late in the book, and most of the story is simply a series of strange encounters with hoodlums, thugs, whores, and a wide array of life's downtrodden.
Through the journey, Eli finds himself beginning to question the life that he and his brother have chosen, and wondering if it might not be preferable to settle down in a quiet life of less danger and more lawfulness. Charlie isn't convinced; he likes the life he lives, and can't understand why Eli would want to give in to the burdens of civilization. (Eli's discovery of the toothbrush, and Charlie's lack of interest in the device, is a nice running joke in the early going.)
True Grit is an obvious touchstone here -- the story's structured around a manhunt; it's filled with quirky characters; the comic tone and even the prose are somewhat evocative of Portis. This is hardly an imitation, though, and I think I like deWitt's characters even more than the sometimes two-dimensional Rooster and Mattie.
I could have done without the mild detour into fantasy that the story takes in its final act. Surely the brothers' meeting with their intended victim could have been driven by a more realistic plot device. But that's a relatively mild quibble; this is a delightful novel that deepens as it goes along, and by the end turns into something quite moving.

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