There are rare literary lottery moments when there comes a book so captivating, so entertaining, so utterly can’t-put-done worthy that I not only want to shout about it from the rooftops, but feel compelled to. Even before I finished trekking my eyes from cover to cover, delighted by following the adventures and misadventures of Eli and Charlie, I thought: “It is now my sworn duty to tell others about this fantastic piece of literature.” The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt is that book.
Of course, I’m not the first bibliophile to notice the greatness of The Sisters Brothers. In 2011 it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize; it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was declared a winner at the Governor General’s Literary Awards. In 2012 it continued its form and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, won the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour writing and won Best Fiction at the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Awards.
So it’s not as though it is without praise. In fact, I’m pretty late to the party. Even still, I wish to gush about it further.
Here is where I give the disclaimer that the following may contain minor spoilers; not necessarily those of plot, but those of mood and character, which sometimes end up being more important, revealing and gratifying in the long run.
The novel opens with our ruminating narrator Eli Sisters talking about the problem with his and his brother’s horses. I was laughing audibly by page two, but almost felt guilty. Was this supposed to be a straightforward comedy? The dialogue was hilarious with its nineteenth-century vocabulary yet still managed to be succinctly genuine. If you laughed, it made sense to be laughing. If you didn’t, it seemed that would be normal as well. In either case, Eli could describe paint dry or grass grow and it would be a joy to read.
“Your laughter is like cool water to me,” I said. I felt my heart sob at these strange words, and it would not have been hard to summon tears: Strange. “You are so serious all of a sudden,” she told me. “I am not any one thing,” I said.
The Sisters brothers are known killers-for-fire on the trail of their latest mark, Hermann Kermit Warm, a man who has wronged their employer The Commodore. The book follows their travels from Oregon City to San Francisco, with each chapter being its own fantastic vignette. Each one finds the brothers getting into and out of some sort of trouble, dealing with consternation from fellow travelers and the perpetual unease of siblings.
Throughout it all are terrific instances of western tropes, satirical and serious both, melded together with Eli’s philosophical narrative tone. The younger and more rotund of the Sisters brothers is a poetic storyteller and in this bitingly funny and bloody tale there are plenty of sections touched with sporadic showings of humanity. There are quotes that made me pause reading to reflect on life, nature, love, cruelty, passion and duty, all without feeling detracted from the story. deWitt makes it fit together and it flows gloriously. After reading a hundred pages or so I wished the novel would just continue indefinitely and become a part of my daily routine. And when I did finish, I didn’t feel empty and sad as I thought I might, but completely thankful that I finally decided to dive into this after years of waiting.
So what kind of a novel is The Sisters Brothers? I suppose it’s officially labelled a historical novel, since it occurs in the real world of America, 1851. But stamping it as such and leaving the matter at that would be a gross disservice. It’s also a picaresque western, a comedy of errors, a thoughtful drama, a philosophical musing on life and a fastidious—yet somehow entirely natural—masterclass in exemplary dialogue. It is at times serious and forlorn, other times (potentially in the same sentence) it is outlandishly funny. In short, it’s difficult to say what it is exactly, other than purely brilliant.
If you enjoy any elements of: western grit, Cormac McCarthy, vaudevillian escapades, slapstick humour, bonfire tales, misled capers, Martin & Lewis, tense gunfights, mismatched bravado, brotherly love, senseless violence, silly violence or any sort of amalgamation of the above, then you will very much enjoy this novel.
Please do yourself a favour and go and enjoy it now.