Among the major literary genres, the Western probably makes me the most wary. Not only have I read precious few books within it, but I am also unfamiliar with other iterations, whether on TV or in the movies. (Except for Justified. Is that a Western?) John Wayne for me is nothing but a name that personifies the cookie-cutter Hollywood Hero. My only way in is country music and… that’s about it.
It’s also a genre that seems so heavily nostalgic for the geographical and historical specifics of the United States to the point that it lionizes episodes of systematic institutional violence such as Manifest Destiny, the uprooting and genocide of Native Americans, and so on. So I guess it’s appropriately ironic that my first foray into the Western is a novel written by a Canadian writer. (Though to be fair, he is a current resident of Oregon according to Wikipedia.)
The premise of Patrick deWitt’s Booker-nominated novel The Sisters Brothers is as simple as it is thrilling: notorious siblings Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired by an Oregon bigwig called the Commodore to travel to California and kill a man. What transpires is an archetypal roadtrip story, except the protagonists are on horseback.
Violence and deceit amidst the California Gold Rush of the 1800s is its backbone, but this novel has a distinct comic melancholy to it. Crucial for this thematic high-wire act is the first person narration of Eli Sisters, the half of the team that outsiders consider as the lesser. The odd poetic turns of phrase here and there stand out sharply from Eli’s mostly plain narration of their tasks. Eli is also prone to some philosophical brooding as he questions the ethics of their job and how they can get out of it entirely. Is cruelty an inherent trait for an assassin? Or can a man who kills people for money still live with some sort of moral code?
Eli’s thoughts also turn to his relationship with his brother. There’s a sort of pragmatic ruthlessness in Charlie that makes him seem opaque–he seems to only allow humans to live as long as they are useful to him or not in his way. He also dismisses Eli’s questions about their profession as stemming from squeamishness. But events within the novel clearly show that Eli can wield violence just as deftly.
I remember giving this novel four stars on GoodReads immediately after finishing it, thinking the plot mundane and not at all remarkable. But The Sisters Brothers managed to do something bizarre–it stayed with me for so long that several songs I have listened to over the past couple of years have become stained with its color. Take, for example, this song called “Right in the Head” by M. Ward.
Another song that has become part of my internal mixtape for The Sisters Brothers is “Blood of Angels” by Brown Bird.
I also find myself thinking about certain scenes at random moments. The plot of The Sisters Brothers is quite simple, but the starkness of these characters’ lives stays regardless. I guess I am not immune to the romance of the genre after all.