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'The Sisters Brothers' -- Saving Canadian Literature, Saving High Schoolers From 'Stone Angel'- Related Comas
on January 26, 2015
Cormac McCarthy, James Carlos Blake, Ron Hansen, Larry McMurtry, and Charles Frazier are the reigning lords of the hard-eyed American historical novel. 'Blood Meridian' can't be called a 'western', any more than 'Wildwood Boys' or 'Desperadoes'. Larry McMurtry comes closest to embracing the tropes of the 'western' genre, but subverts reader expectations at every turn. The frontier was not settled by singing cowboys. Indians weren't simple savages, but they weren't the noble nature-loving quasi-Buddhists that became the Hollywood cliché in the late-sixties and seventies. It was a brutal, vicious battleground, where every random encounter between strangers would very likely end violently.
Patrick DeWitt has joined this august company with `The Sisters Brothers', a novel that combines the flawlessly crafted prose of Charles Frazier or fellow Canadian Michael Ondaatje, with a darkly comical tale that suggests Charles Portis -- 'True Grit' as realized by the Coen Brothers - and James Carlos Blake - particularly his brutal masterpiece `In the Rogue Blood'. Like the latter, DeWitt's book is a story about brothers who are born killers made for a bloody world; like the former, it has a darkly comedic intelligence. As a Canadian myself, I felt bad about NOT feeling bad about the lack of native literary fiber in my pulp-heavy diet. Ondaatje, yes. Atwood, sure. But beyond `Oryx and Crake', I can't remember the last time I read another Canadian novel. Tony Burgess and `Pontypool Changes Everything', I guess, preceded by the loosely connected stories in `The Hellmouths of Bewdley'... 10, 15 years ago. Which means that I'm confessing to being a bad Canadian. Even before Gian Gomeshi was unmasked as Jack the Ripper, I still fled in terror when `Canada Reads' infected the CBC airwaves, with a suitably terrifying frontman. I knew that anyone who could create music as undeniably evil as the sonic terrorism of Moxy Fruvous... Anyway...
I feel like Dewitt has finally crafted Canlit that doesn't feel like a homework assignment. `The Sisters Brothers' is a cocaine counterpoint to the literary laxatives of `Two Solitudes' and `The Stone Angel'. If the point of using Hugh McLennan and Margaret Lawrence was to scare kids away from Canlit forever - brilliant. They could also have value as practical demonstrations of Relativity: narrative black holes clearly distorting space-time, each paragraph requires a dogged determination; when you manage to break free of it's oppressive gravitational pull, hours have passed... and you're still on the same page.
It's probably true that those wacky kids would hate any book they're forced to read. But the chances of creating an entire generation of anti-Canlit jihadists will be significantly reduced if we take a sledge-hammer to `The Stone Angel' and go with `The Sisters Brothers' instead. Unless teenagers completely suck. I'm willing to consider that possibility.
What's it about, you ask? Due to my severe case of CBPTSD (Canlit-based Post Traumatic Stress Dissorder), any attempts at literary synopsis or criticism may result in projectile vomit, pointy eyeballs, and an elegant, convulsive style of dance that is like an unholy union of Krumpin', Riverdance, and the Macarena... but it's actually a Grand Mal seizure. Still, I'm doing this for my country, dammit!
Eli and Charlie Sisters are cold-blooded killers employed by a man known as `The Commodore'. Eli is the narrator of the tale, and he often defers to his brothers. Eli has a soft streak that Charlie doesn't seem to possess, showing a sympathy and occasional empathy that is totally inappropriate for a hired gun. Charlie is very different person - lean and quick and calculating, with a violent temper that often affects his trigger finger... his primary source of income.
The story opens in Oregon City, as the Sisters brothers set out on orders to murder a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm, whom the Commodore has denounced simply as a thief. Their journey to San Francisco is an eventful one, and Charlie begins to express anger with The Commodore, and dissatisfaction with their arrangement. Upon arriving in the city, they track down a friend of Warm's, who reveals some very interesting details concerning the German prospector's partnership and subsequent falling-out with The Commodore. It involves a method of finding and extracting gold from riverbeds, based on a chemical of Warm's devising. He absconded with his work and secrets when he realized that his partner would certainly kill him once the formula was done. Eli and Charlie now must decide between loyalty to their employer, and a chance to get rich by betraying him.
In between, `The Sisters Brothers' is rich to overflowing with fascinating characters and stories. The dynamic between Eli and Charlie provides the most memorable relationships and characters I've come across in ages. This is one of my new favorites, and it feels super patriotic to say that Patrick DeWitt is one of my favorite authors. He's saved fiction in Canada. If someone says that Canadian Literature doesn't need saving - smite them with a righteous vengeance!... Or start a conversation. Either way is good. But READ this book... Do it for Canada (Or if you're American, read it because it rocks).