Highly Recommended / Historical Fiction

Well Worth a Read: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters Brothers doesn’t seem like a book a lot of people have read – but those who’ve read it loved it, including the geeky-cool Wil Wheaton, who said “I had to restrain myself from reading The Sisters Brothers in one sitting.”

The Sisters Brothers was selected for the Man Booker shortlist in 2011.  The book seems an unlikely candidate for critical acclaim, being a sort of rough and violent tale of two brothers in the 1850’s Wild West.  This book is full of fighting, death, and sex but it’s also about the relationship between these brothers and one man’s desire to lead a quieter life.

It tells the story of Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie, as they travel to San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm.  The Sisters Brothers are notorious assassins, only Eli’s starting to think about giving up this career for something more peaceful, something that might involve settling down, finding a woman and opening up a shop.  The only problem is that Charlie loves the violent life, and Eli puts his brother above all else.

When I started the book, I was really thrown by DeWitt’s use of dialect – or rather the lack of dialect.  In this tale of semi-literate Wild West assassins I expected shortened words, poor grammar, lots of swearing.  Instead you get a strangely formal dialect that even the most educated person doesn’t use.  Most problematic for me was the infrequent and inconsistent use of contractions.  For example: “Morris is waiting for us at a hotel in San Francisco.  He will point Warm out and we will be on our way.  It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard.”

This distracted me so much I nearly put the book down.  But people love it so much I pushed on, and while I still found the dialogue stilted throughout the entire book, the story certainly draws you in, and the character of Eli quickly wins you over.

In many ways, this book plays on all the stereotypes of the Wild West story.  We have crazy prospectors, thugs, whores, crime bosses, and the man who is trying to go straight but life just won’t let him.  What’s startling – and powerful – about this book is how DeWitt can go from base thuggery to poetry in the space of a single page.  The other thing about this book that really stands out is that Eli is more than just a sensitive outlaw.  His struggles to endear himself to women, to earn the respect of his brother, and even to be a good son to his mother, make him something more than a stock character.

That, and the story just doesn’t stop.  It’s exactly what you want in a Wild West/road trip/last adventure kind of tale.

From the reviews I read, I worried the book would be too violent for me.  It wasn’t. Everything about the lives of these characters is violent, and has to be for the story to work.  For me, it’s not gunfight violence that bothers me, but torture and rape kinds of violence.  In fact the part of this book that had me squirming the most involved surgery on Eli’s horse.  Although violence towards animals often bothers us more than violence to humans, doesn’t it?  Something about them being helpless and innocent, and not understanding what’s happening to them.  I can tell you most of the human deaths in this book didn’t bother me much.

Going back to the dialect issue, I thought I’d see what Man Booker and the New York Times had to say.  Does DeWitt’s strange use of speech contribute to these rave reviews, or like me, detract from them just a little?  Is anyone else in the world bothered by the absence of contractions or am I just weird?

Here’s what Man Booker had to say:

Told in deWitt’s darkly comic and arresting style, The Sisters Brothers is the kind of western the Coen Brothers might write – stark, unsettling and with a keen eye for the perversity of human motivation. Like his debut novel Ablutions, it is a novel about the things you tell yourself in order to be able to continue to live the life you find yourself in, and what happens when those stories no longer work. It is an inventive and strange and beautifully controlled piece of fiction and displays an exciting expansion of Dewitt’s range.

The New York Times covered the topic a bit more.

Eli Sisters tells the story in a loftily formal fashion, doggedly literal, vulgar and polite at turns, squeezing humor out of stating the obvious with flowery melodrama. “Tub!” Eli cries at one point, “I am stuck inside the cabin of the vile gypsy-witch. . . . Tub! Assist me in my time of need!”

This is dime-novel speech, and DeWitt’s version of it raises interesting questions. Did real-life Western vernacular sound like this snippet from George Ruxton’s 1849 travel narrative, “Life in the Far West”: “Do ’ee hyar now, you darned crittur?” Or did it sound like this, from “The Sisters Brothers”: “ ‘Your hat is tattered, also.’ ‘I like my hat.’ ‘You seem to have known each other a long while, judging by the sweat rings.’ My face darkened and I said, ‘It is impolite to speak of other people’s clothing like that.’ ”

The answer is neither. When eye dialect is, thankfully, no longer the fashion, reported speech like that in Ruxton seems magically to vanish from the historical record. And when formal politeness is in fashion (thanks to Charles Portis’s “True Grit”), sometimes, to be sure, combined with numbing expletives (thanks to the HBO series “Deadwood”), its ultimate source is novels written by Eastern authors who were taught in school that good writing displays a horror of contractions. DeWitt’s version of this vernacular is a stylized abstraction of Western speech after it originated in the South, found a niche in the Civil War and crossed the Mississippi, where it passed through any number of filters: political orations, florid journalism and mouths too full of chaw to say much, to name just a few.

So, you’ve got my opinion, and the opinion of people who are maybe more qualified than I am to judge.  I’ll give Wheaton the last word, who says Eli’s voice “wasn’t the easiest thing for me to get used to.”

Still, this book was a hundred percent worth the read, contractions or not.

Note: Article first published as Book Review: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt on Blogcritics.

2 thoughts on “Well Worth a Read: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

  1. Pingback: Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt | The Book Stop

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