The Booker Prize is usually controversial and last year was no exception with the appointment of the former MI5 Director General, as chairwoman of the judging panel.
There was the usual conjecture about the quality of the work, and why other titles did not make it to the short list. Reading the winning novel, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, I have to admit that I was disappointed in it because I had previously read Patrick de Witt’s rather wonderful story, The Sisters Brothers, and much preferred it.
The Sisters Brothers has been described as “a contemporary reinvention of the western” and even as “cowboy noir.” It probably owes something to the excellent television series, Deadwood (2004-2006), which starts off with a few foul-mouthed desperadoes behaving really badly in a pioneer town called “Deadwood”—a town which seems to the relatively civilised city-dweller who finds him-or-herself there, a kind of Hell on Earth, with its mud, its flimsy wooden buildings, and its perpetually drunk inhabitants who are just as likely to settle their many disputes by shooting them dead, as not. Yet, as the series continues, there emerges from this blot on the landscape some surprising traces of humanity, even of nobility of spirit (of the kind which is not poured from a bottle.) There is the very complicated Al Swearengen, the town’s first saloon-keeper, who emerges as someone we barely recognise from our first sight of him, and Doc Cochran, a minor saint who attends Swearengen’s and Cy Tolliver’s whores, and is himself one of the town’s drunks. Even the whores who inevitably appear in various stages of undress in various rooms of the rival saloon bars, have stories we recognise and with which we can empathise. And as the town begins to expand and become more permanent, even worse characters than those we first meet arrive at and stay in Deadwood, people more ruthless and addicted to violence. The realisation dawns upon us that what we are witnessing is not just the burgeoning of a frontier-town, but the establishment of capitalism in the US of A.
Now if you add the rawness of this scenario to the lyricism of the Coen Brothers’ gorgeous remake of True Grit, you have an idea of Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are guns for hire, working, when the novel opens, for a shadowy figure simply called the Commodore. They have been emplyed to kill a man called Hermann Kermit Warm, but only after they have wrested a formula from him which the Commodore claims Warm stole from him.
Prepared to do the Commodore’s bidding and not knowing what the formula is for, the brothers cut a swathe through the country with their murders and mayhem. Charlie Sister is particularly cold-blooded, but then he has, for many years, protected Eli from their violent, drunken father, perhaps allowing his little brother the luxury of greater sentience. Eli is aware of the pain inflicted on his horse, Tub, for instance, and is less likely to rush to judgement of other men —unless he happens to be in one of his terrible rages, one of which had him sent away from his mother.
Though both the brothers shed blood, there is sometimes a dark humour to their blood-letting, perhaps because most of their victims are a lot worse men than they. Once again the Wild West is portrayed as a place where the weak perish.
The travels and travails of the Sisters brothers could be described as picaresque, but there is a sense of low-level but inexorable change in the two picaroons . . . even the possibility of redemption. Characters that develop as a result of the plot-line are always the most satisfying. Gradually, Eli, the more intelligent and sensitive of the two brothers, begins to see the possibility of a different path in his life than the one he has embarked upon with Charlie. And the changes that are wrought in him seem perfectly natural, neither contrived nor cloying. The new tension created by Eli’s slowly dawning epiphany is this: How is he going to change Charlie —or at least, modify his brother’sbloodlust?
The resolution —if it can be called this, works. Charlie’s behaviour is precisely what we would expect from him. Even the limitation imposed upon him is utterly believable.
This is an excellent novel: beautifully crafted, spare, and credible. Without preaching from any pulpit, deWitt leads us to ponder the mindless brutality and cruelty which seems to accompany the act of nation-building, and the futility of the greed which destroys not only idyllic environments, but the very people who scrabble so hard to acquire vast wealth at the expense of anything and anyone else.