|The Sisters Brothers
4 / 5
"I was sitting outside the Commodore's mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job."
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn't share his brother's appetite for whiskey and killing, he's never known anything else. But their prey isn't an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm's gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.
With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters–losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life–and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.
I just got back from my book club meeting; the group is what finally forced me to get around to reading this book that I’ve been intrigued by for several years. But I wanted to wait to see what others had to say about it before I got my own thoughts down on paper. And whew, now I have so many thoughts! I don’t know where to begin.
We started off the discussion commenting on how “flat” the narrative was - not in a bad way, just in the sense that everything that happened seemed so emotionless. One person mentioned that Jane Smiley hated the book for that reason. Another compared it to the writing style of Cormac McCarthy; having read only The Road from him so far, I can still see where she was coming from. We also discussed the “picaresque” genre, a term I’d never encountered before today. The feel of the book really appealed to me, although I think it is one of those types which a reader either loves or hates. I myself enjoyed the dry humor, the quirky banter, the odd wit, and the deadpan way everything was executed.
We also discussed how alchemy and chemicals played a very large part in this book - clearly most evident in “the formula”, but also in the various other incarnations, including the use of some sort of novocaine, the drinking of copious amounts of alcohol, and the introduction of toothpaste. I commented on how it was a very interesting time when the nation was transitioning away from snake oil doctors and into embracing more scientific medical practices, so the book was fascinating from that aspect. I also loved how it was centered around the era of the Gold Rush, so it featured outlaws and hired guns and shootouts and general lawlessness - all of which culminated in their arrival in San Francisco, which was the epitome of the town with no rules and no discipline.
There was so much said in book club (I am still absorbing it!) and there is just so much to so about this book, but I think ultimately what I took away from the discussion was the way the brothers had grown. I got the impression that they kind of ended up exactly where they started, with nothing having changed. But everyone dissuaded me from this notion by pointing out that Charlie & Eli really do become different people throughout the course of their odyssey. It is subtle but you do get to see a big shift. So the dry, somewhat surreal novel really does have something to say. I had initially just enjoyed it for its adventure, but there is certainly more to the book than meets the eye. (Which also jibes with the amazing book cover design, too!)
P.S. When I finished the book, I noticed that John C. Reilly was thanked in the book’s Acknowledgments section, and I was curious as to whether it was the actor. Turns out it was, and Reilly has optioned the movie into a film - I could so see him playing Eli Sisters! Apparently DeWitt and Reilly worked together on a different movie, which is how they met. It leads me to wonder whether DeWitt wrote the character of Eli with the actor in mind. In any case, no word on the production of that movie yet, but I am eager to see it happen!
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