on January 19, 2012
A beautifully written evocative tale. But I didn't like it. The dialogue and interior monologues are witty and intuitive, the descriptions are fantastic but as a story, I didn't care for it much. As other reviewers have stated, there is a lot of violence in this tale and my stomach turned with the treatment of the horse. The book is about a long journey and the return to home as many books are but in the end I felt "so what." I would read this author again as he is indeed talented, maybe it was just a case of the subject matter not being to my taste.
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).
on February 2, 2012
The publishers review reads 'Patrick] DeWitt has produced a genre-bending frontier saga that is exciting, funny, and perhaps unexpectedly, moving', however I found this book was not the least bit exciting, rarely funny, hardly moving and yes... unexpected in a weird sort of a way. I am reminded that when a book comes with a long list of awards it is hardly ever a really good read. Some parts of the book were quite gruesome and the rest was mostly just boring. I did finish reading the book, and the last part of the book centered around a rather unique idea (regarding gold prospecting) but it was not a book that I would recommend to anyone.
on August 13, 2011
Set in 1851 right in the middle of the California gold rush, the novel tells the story of two infamous brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters who set out on a mission by the commodore from Oregon City to apprehend and kill Hermann Kermit Warm.
The chapters are short and the pace is brisk as the brothers drink, swear, trick and shoot their way west in pursuit of their quarry encountering a witch, an orphan and a prospector gone mad in the solitude of his work.
The narration of Eli Sisters is in a evocative cowboy patter and the description of the fairly frequent violence is vivid the effect being to put you in the saddle as they slaughter their way across the west toward California but it's not for the feint-hearted.
It's an entertaining yarn, the relationship between the younger Eli and the elder Charlie is an intelligent mix of admiration, jealousy and competition and the vivid prose is a real highlight. It is very light reading and I went through it in a couple of days without really trying. My judgement is that it's good but not booker good and I can't see this one getting through to the longlist.
This is one of the strangest and wildest novels I have ever read. With all its twists and turns and bizarre outcomes, I don't know how to classify it other than to call it a modern spoof about the legendary West, encased in an anything-goes, cowboy style. While one part of me finds the adventures of two hell-raising brothers bent on doing their thing as hired guns a compelling and a sometimes amusing read, another part takes issue at the often awkward and loose way in which they are told. The account of Eli and Charles as gun-touting, adventure-seeking hitmen doing the bidding of a local `mafia' boss comes with plenty of peculiarities that make it fast-paced, unpredictable and something larger than life. One, complicating the lives of these two murderous bounty-hunters is that Eli and Charles are brothers who really care for each other, a quality that one doesn't generally associate with contract killers. Two, their quest appears to be a never-ending journey into the wilds of the Oregon Territory to kill someone they have never met. The reader will take three-quarters of the book to discover who their quarry really is. Three, along the way, obstacles will emerge that require both ingenuity and good fortune to overcome and stay the course. Four, in the end, our two gunslingers will accomplish their mission only to realize that the venture has been so much more than originally anticipated. Decent men and women have been killed; trust has been broken; and life has virtually been taken to the edge. On all these points, deWitt has done a reasonable job in composing a readable novel. But, in creating this torrid-paced, thriller of a novel, the author may have taken some significant literary short-cuts to get art to imitate life. For instance, the story hurls ahead with breath-taking speed as it tries to wow the reader with a big-moment, crazy story. What results in the end is a plot that has too many gaps, too many improbable moments, and too many stock characters. Throw in the extensive use of the modern idiom and you have a novel that, while imaginatively conceived, is poorly planned and rendered. In no way, does it even remotely come close to being in the same league as Cervantes' "Don Quixote".
on July 24, 2012
After all of the hype surrounding this novel (especially in Canada; I don't know about other countries) I had expected something more stunning. What I found was a well written and entertaining piece of fiction; however, it lacked the depth of a truly great novel. In great novels I find myself pondering themes and ideas presented throughout the course of the book long after I have flipped the final page. The Sisters Brothers never progressed beyond a fun, adventure story, and while I enjoyed it for what it was meant to be, I disagree with anyone heralding it as a great piece of literature. It is much better than most of the worthless fiction that adorns the tables of bestsellers in Chapters and Coles, but it is just a good book, and not a great one.
The story centers on Eli and Charlie, two very strong protagonists, and though they are the perpetrators of cruel and violent acts, they still retain the sympathies of the reader. Much like the heroes of the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, these are violent, cold men who make a living by their penchant for killing. DeWitt places these hardened killers into a world of rough and evil men, a world where human life has little meaning and the "good" characters are really no better than the "bad" men that they kill.
Eli is the narrator of the story, and as the gentler of the two brothers, he serves as a buffer between the reader and the drunken, hardened Charlie. Eli dislikes his current profession and continues in it only through a sense of loyalty to his older brother. He is a very well fleshed out character, vastly different than the typical lean, cool gunslinger of Leone's films, and instead an overweight and surprisingly sensitive fellow. Although he is fat, Eli does not degenerate into a mere comedic farce of a character, humouring the audience as he tries to be heroic; he manages to still be a completely serious and sympathetic character. His weight problem serves to add to the gritty, realistic effect of the novel by showing that not all deadly fighters have to be romantic. This is further shown through Charlie, for even though he is more of the cold, deadly, and lean gunslinger than his brother, his image is undermined by the fits of alcohol binging that he resorts to in between killings to drown away his turbulent conscience. A character like Clint Eastwood's Man with no Name in any of Leone's films is shown only as a romantic figure; the adverse effects of his lifestyle are never revealed to the audience. Charlie's drunkenness and self loathing undermine his romantic image and add a layer of gritty realism to the role of a gun-slinging hit man.
Although the characterization is excellent, the actual plot of the novel is very average. It is more of a roaming adventure story than a seriously plot driven novel. This does not have to ruin a book, for many superb novels are not equipped with gripping plots, but what they lack in plot they usually atone for with a fascinating and deep insight into life. For example, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway has no real plot and merely follows the activities of several characters throughout the course of a single day in London, yet it remains a great novel for her ingenious insight into human nature, and the way in which she examines the universal sense of loneliness felt by all of her characters. DeWitt, on the other hand, does not have a particularly deep insight into any facet of life; therefore, the lack of a strong plot is keenly felt. The plot that he does have is decent and is interesting enough to keep the reader hooked, but it is not enough to qualify the novel for any accolades in the realm of great literature.
Overall, I consider The Sisters Brothers to be a good book and worth reading, but I cannot recommend it too highly. In the future, I will probably give deWitt another chance with his next novels; only now, I will know exactly what to expect.
on January 4, 2014
In this off-beat Western two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, are hired to kill Herman Kermit Warm, a man who may have stolen money from their ruthless boss, although they don’t worry too much about the reason they have to kill him. They’re hired killers, and so they set out to do what they’re hired to do. Charlie is the nastier, quick-tempered one of the two brothers, while Eli, the narrator, maintains a bit of optimism about humanity, although he’s just as ready as Charlie to kill whoever gets in his way.
The story takes them on a search for Warm during the California Gold Rush, and on the road they meet the expected unusual cast of characters: Indians, witches, barflies, and so on. The details are rich, the commentary by Eli is sometimes touching, and even humorous, despite the violence in the book. As we get to know Eli we come to feel that he and his brother are prisoners in a jail of their own making, knowing nothing else but violence and life in the wilds. Eli, at least, would be happier doing anything else for a living, but he is fiercely loyal to Charlie, no matter what the other does.
A revisionist Western, in some ways, exploring stereotypes and turning them inside out, but far from plodding or preachy. The book keeps you reading to find out what sort of mischief the two brothers will get into next, all the while wondering if there will be redemption for either of them at the end, or if they will face a reckoning for the choices they’ve made. Definitely worth reading.
on March 7, 2016
Although it's certainly not a hard western, it's a strong western-lite. Hitting all the right notes for people who may not be fans of the genre generally. I wouldn't call it phenomenal, but it's engaging.
The core characters (Charlie, Eli, and Tub) are well crafted, while others are, obviously, less fleshed out. Unfortunately the non-core characters end up feeling somewhat punchliney, and end up being used almost exclusively to reflect back on Charlie and Eli.
The plot is pretty simple aside from one or two twists, though the narrative never really strays from it's path. The book also leans HEAVILY on tropes of the western genre.
This may sound a little bit on the negative side, but there are some good reasons the book was so successful. The accessibility and narrative drive create an easy reading experience, and the simplicity of the satellite characters keeps from jostling the plot. It came out at a pretty much perfect time for a mini-western revival, and scratching that itch was obviously a contributing factor, but none of that would have mattered if the book wasn't at least honest with it's characters.
on October 6, 2014
Though this novel is quite different from the other books I have reviewed, which tend to belong to the fantasy genre, I nonetheless was intrigued to read it, because of three things: the bizarre cover, the awards it has won, and descriptions I had heard about its graphic depiction of violence.
Actually, fantasy readers might like this book because it is a fine work of genre fiction: that is to say, the Western. Westerns follow many of the romance conventions that inspire fantasy novels. Just as Sir Lancelot rides into castles, performs deeds for the king, wins fame and fortune, and rides out, back on his quest for the Holy Grail, Charlie and Eli Sisters, the protagonists of DeWitt’s novel, have multiple side-adventures.
Their quest is to fulfill their contract for the mysterious man named the Commodore, by murdering the prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. But then they begin to question the moral nature of their violent and dangerous job…
The adventures the two Sisters brothers may appear to be random, but in midst of the grit and melancholy of the Old West, little insights into the human condition surface, glowing like pieces of gold dust in a mighty California river.
on August 28, 2012
I was instantly drawn into the narrative by Eli’s directness and the 19th century Western dialect. He is accused by other characters of having poetic tendencies, and this is true. I found his relationship to Tub -- his inadequate and eventually blinded horse -- touching. Tub is the lesser horse (compared to Eli’s brother’s horse Nimble) in the same way that Eli is the lesser killer (compared to his sociopathic brother Charlie). Eli’s feelings for Tub mirror his own self-doubt as well as his longing for kindness, understanding, and forgiveness.
The tale is nasty, brutish, and at times humouress. Many critics have mentioned a likeness to the Western stories of Elmore Leonard. Initially, I was reminded of Jesse Bullington’s “The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart,” although early similarities disappear by the novel’s conclusion.
The cover design by Dan Stiles is amazing and enhanced my enjoyment of reading the trade paperback rather than an e-version.