A review of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Reviewed by P.P.P. Kane

The Sisters Brothers
By Patrick deWitt
Granta Books, 2011
ISBN: 9781847083180

What is there to say about Patrick deWitt’s rather fine novel?

Well, first that it’s a kind of Western noir, the main storyline involving two brothers, a pair of hired killers, making their way to California with the intention of killing a prospector by name of Hermann Kermit Warm. The story is told from the point of view of Eli, who is somewhat ambivalent about his chosen profession; the other brother, Charlie, is a cool (or for this read ‘disengaged’; in any event he’s a fellow with the empathy button turned firmly off) sociopath. They have an undoubted bond, a workable understanding; but there are also, it would be fair to say, a few fractures in the fraternal relationship.

There is quite a sizable picarersque element to the novel, especially in its first part. This details the people the brothers meet and the difficulties they encounter as they journey ever westward, into the unknown. We are shown your typical Western characters within a new light and with a dark humour: a big rancher who owns a whole town, a boy who’s a survivor from a wagon train massacre, a dentist studying the subject by correspondence, myriad gunfighters, prospectors and bears. (And speaking of bears, sort of, dig the allusion early on – on page 6 – to Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’.)

DeWitt’s prose is an immense pleasure, well-nigh pitch perfect. He sounds a false note on one or at most three occasions: on page 43 certainly (‘focus’ is a too modern usage), maybe on pages 183 and 194 also (did terrific carry the sense of ‘great’ in 1851? Or was it simply a synonym for ‘terrifying’? I confess I’m unsure). His novel is beautifully written, on a par with what to my mind are the two other great Western novels by contemporary American writers: Quinn’s Book by William Kennedy and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Certain sections are entitled ‘Intermission’, so it’s structured like an old-style cinema or picture-palace experience; and indeed you could view The Sisters Brothers as being a literary equivalent of Meek’s Cutoff. It’s moving and it means something.

Within deWitt’s book there’s also a side-text about the destruction of the balance of nature and the consequences of a rabid search for gold, whether it be black gold or the original deal, as here. In the end, it’s all fool’s. And on a cheerier note: Yes, brushing your teeth can be an ineffable delight, truly. This novel says it, and and it needed saying.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com