Snowdrops by A.D. MillerReading the Longlist

Confession vs. Mystery

(and a warning re:


The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt
Review by Dan DeWeese

By now you’ve probably heard about The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt’s western picaresque. It has been nominated for numerous awards in multiple countries; the Ecco hardback’s cover art, by Dan Stiles, is clever, daring, and unforgettable; and the book’s promotional materials assure readers that the film is “already optioned for film by John C. Reilly who will star and produce [sic].” That’s a lot of attention—and production value—for a book, which means that by this point, any reader picking up The Sisters Brothers is probably at some level wondering whether a single book can live up to this degree of pre-sale prestige.
            Luckily, the answer is yes. DeWitt’s tale of Charlie and Eli Sisters—killer brothers with a reputation that precedes them—and their journey from Oregon City to Sacramento in 1851 to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm touches so many notes, so skillfully, that just a few pages of deWitt’s prose silences not only any pre-sale preconceptions, but renders the entire world that gave rise to those conceptions—in other words, the “real world”—just a faint buzz somewhere in the background as you give yourself over to the world of deWitt’s novel. We are in the company of Eli Sisters from the word go, as he glances sidelong at an inferior horse he has been given for this new job, moments before learning  his employer, “The Commodore,” has suggested that brother Charlie operate as lead man on this next job, and Eli take a smaller share of the pay. The brothers’ relationship is fractious from the opening pages, but in a way that also signals deep familiarity and fidelity. The brother’s interactions, mostly rendered via deWitt’s formidable skill with dialogue, provide the novel with a propulsive energy that is its heart. One senses that an ongoing sibling rivalry has now been formalized into a work relationship, and that Eli’s response, which he seems to be turning over as the novel proceeds, could land anywhere on a continuum from a apathetic shrug to a spasm of killing.

            DeWitt takes full advantage of the opportunities a picaresque offers: there are wild and wily characters, episodes that become their own mini-stories, and always the opportunity for the brothers to move on down the road before they, or the narrative, becomes too deeply enmeshed in local situations. Charles Portis’s name has been raised as a reference, and the comparison is apt insofar as deWitt puts a cockeyed spin on the genre by sprinkling it with eccentrics and then allowing them to talk and hatch plans. Though the Sisters brothers know to fire guns with great skill and little compunction, this is a tale that takes place not in an Old West populated by similarly violent stoics, but rather in that other “Old West”: the land of traveling sideshows, lost and wandering talkers, and prospectors gone batty with a lust for dust. DeWitt not only maintains command of this material, but he’s one of those writers in command of the reader’s assumptions, as well. Every time you think the narrative is going to settle into being a Coen Brothers movie, a simple allegory of the culture industry, or just an update of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, deWitt is ahead of you and the story changes—but in a way that feels organic and that reveals, more than anything else, the impoverished palette of your own assumptions. DeWitt’s doesn’t use period detail so much as he interrogates it and then makes it a part of the story, and he doesn’t defy genre conventions so much as he just lets his mad dreamers (and the story) go where they want, even if it means a spiked river aglow with an enchanting and lucrative beauty, though it also delivers debilitating chemical burns to those who wade in. It’s not just westerns that don’t wander into this terrain, but fiction in general—this is bold, funny, inventive stuff, relayed in the companionable voice of a killer so reflective that you despair for his safety, reflection not being a quality that keeps one quick on the draw. The Sisters Brothers is like the literary equivalent of a song with a theremin in it: you want to say the exotic oscillation renders things immediately and irretrievably dark or otherwordly, but the fact of the matter is that in the right hands, it’s still possible to employ the instrument in the service of “Good Vibrations.” If you think by that I mean a pop trifle, you should listen to “Good Vibrations” again. Like The Sisters Brothers, it entertains and amazes in equal measure, and the impact doesn’t soon fade. Ω

Dan DeWeese is the Editor-in-Chief of Propeller. His novel, You Don't Love This Man (Harper Perennial), came out earlier this year.