“Stick ‘Em Up!”
I love a good western novel and movie. Writers such as Cormac McCarthy, James Carlos Blake and of course Portis’s “True Grit” had a strong impact me. Movie westerns have always been a matter of contention in my family however. My father and sister were obsessed with John Wayne and director John Ford movies, while I battled screen time for Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson in the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. (Part of it must have been Morricone’s music- genius. He discarded symphonic strings and brass and brought in the folkloric and the grotesque: whistling, choral shouting, dissonant harmonic, lonesome trumpet, and chimes. I mean come on- he brought in the gnarly electric guitar people! But I digress.)
If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick DeWitt’s bloody, darkly funny western “The Sisters Brothers.” Unlike Russell’s “Doc” which I hear is a wonderfully intricately researched and deeply sympathetic portrayal of the western that mocks the dime novels that immortalized the shootout at the OK Corral. DeWitt’s approach in ”The Sisters Brothers“ is different as he frequently crosses into comic territory to produce a story that’s weirdly funny, startlingly violent and steeped in sadness.
If Eli and Charles Sisters come after you, brush up your will. Run and they’ll find you. Deal and they’ll trick you. Draw and they’ll shoot you. They’re the fabled assassins at the center of this bloody buddy story set on the West Coast in 1851.
As the Gold Rush induces “thousands of previously intelligent men and women to abandon their families and homes forever,” Eli and Charles serve as the killing arms of the Commodore, a shadowy tycoon in Oregon City, “whose influence could be found in every corner of the country.” At the start of the novel, he dispatches the Sisters brothers to Sacramento to kill a gold prospector named Herman Kermit Warm. They don’t know what Mr. Warm has done wrong — taken something, they suppose — but it makes no difference to their patient, implacable progress: He’s a dead man. Their weeks-long journey on horseback to hunt him down provides the itinerary for this picaresque adventure.
Fun fact all you literary junkies:
The ancestor of all road movies and novels: the picaresque in its classic form is narrated by a rogue from the lower stations who, on his journey, rises through the classes as he encounters various typecast characters — blind beggars, impoverished noblemen, lusty women. It’s a satirical genre that sends up not only such social types but the narrator himself, whose education consists of learning to adopt bourgeois hypocrisies. It’s also usually narrated in a gritty vernacular, and the version of 19th-century Western speech in “The Sisters Brothers” is surely gritty, as well as deadpan and often very comic. 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!”
DeWitt has chosen a narrative voice so sharp and distinctive, even if limited in its range by Charlie’s intelligence, that it’s very narrowing of possibilities opens new doors in the reader’s imagination. “I wished the boy safe travels, but these were empty words, for he was clearly doomed…He stood there weeping and watching us go, while behind him Lucky Paul entered and collapsed the prospector’s tent, and I thought, Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.” Simple. Profound. Perfect.
This, like the novel’s climax, is both striking and strange. It describes a kind of truth that DeWitt is clearly more than capable of investigating. Other passages do likewise — his portrait of San Francisco’s “madness of possibilities” during the gold rush, for example. With its $100 prostitutes, its $30 meals of meat, spuds and ice cream, and its harbor choked with ships whose cargos were never unloaded because the crews ran off to the gold fields, San Francisco is the perfectly surreal centerpiece of “The Sisters Brothers.”
Charlie takes on a deeper dimension. Charlie to Eli: “‘Do you think your mangled, brainless horse can make it to the next town without hurtling itself off a cliff? What’s that? You’re not smiling, are you? We’re in a quarrel, and you mustn’t under any circumstances smile.’ I was not smiling but then began to, slightly. ‘No,’ said Charlie, ‘you mustn’t smile when quarreling. It’s wrong and I dare say you know it’s wrong. You must stew and hate and revisit all the slights I offered you in childhood.’”
And while Charles pursues all the usual vices, nothing gives Eli more pleasure than discovering the fine-smelling, tingling feeling of brushing his teeth. “It is highly refreshing to the mouth,” he tells anyone who will listen. (The toothbrush must have been the iPad of the mid-19th century. It plays a prized roll in Dorset’s “Doc,” too.)
It’s all rendered irresistible by Eli Sisters, who narrates with a mixture of melancholy and thoughtfulness. He’s a reluctant murderer — he’d rather be a shopkeeper — but assassination is a job, the only one he’s ever had, and it keeps him close to his brother, which is nice. He describes their progress toward Sacramento with deadpan sincerity flecked with earnestness and despair.
“The Sisters Brothers” frontier is more poetic than realistic but as easy to slip into as the old HBO series “Deadwood.” I think I need to Netflix this one? But where an onscreen western shows the setting, this book has few descriptions of landscape or buildings they visit. What gets described, instead, are bodily woes. Charlie’s bad drunks and worse hangovers include lots of vomiting; Eli has injuries that bleed and swell, and the decline of Tub, Eli’s horse, after getting swatted by a grizzly is, in the end, grisly.
There is something very human in all this blood and guts, however, in their grim and gross and comic physicality. This humanness, with the humanness that Eli is growing into, gives the novel a warmth and depth. Now I am going to just wait for the Cohen Brother’s version of the movie to come out.