07 August 2011

Books: The Brothers Sisters by Patrick de Witt (2011)

For generations, the Western genre has been portrayed in pretty much the same way, with its black hats and white hats, the sense of right and wrong and glory of the hero ending the reign of terror of some evil man. It was predictable, safe and (from the Hollywood point of view) extremely successful. But while there has always been a sort of casual violence to the genre, it never was portrayed as brutal –well, with the exception of Sam Pekinpah films maybe.

These books, films and TV shows never examined the heart of where the violence of these men came from. Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar winning film Unforgiven attempted to look at the moral ambiguities the genre presented, and tried to paint it in a more realistic life.

In the novel The Brothers Sisters, we meet Eli and Charlie Sisters, infamous assassins who are sent on an errand to kill one Hermann Kermit Warm, an ingenious (and, as it turns out, extremely likable) man, who is accused of stealing from their boss, a fearsome figure named the Commodore.

Yet, as they set out, we understand that younger brother Eli (and narrator of the book) has grown weary of the killing, and wants to settle down (and seems to be developing a puppy-love to almost any women that crosses his path from Oregon City to San Francisco), while Charlie seems indifferent on the whole subject. Their conversations are, in the end, mundane and often hilarious. Sure there is plenty of Western tropes –saloons, prostitutes, sneak attacks and gun play - but de Witt shows these only to be small aspects of the Sisters lives, because the story is filled with petty squabbles, misunderstandings and a lot of hangovers.

Through the eyes and voice of Eli, we see what a reluctant murderer he is, and how truly different (yet the same) he is from his older brother. He sees violence begets violence, but is unsure, or incapable, of changing the course of his life. There is a generous man buried under Eli’s rage, one who is kind to women and animals –his devotion to his injured horse sparks a retort from Charlie, who calls his brother “The Protector of Moronic Beasts.”

The Sisters Brothers is often funny, dark and lyrical, especially when the novel seamlessly moves from causal murder to thoughtful opinions. It’s not so much a commentary on the Western genre that say Unforgiven was, but like that iconic movie, we see that while the Sisters brothers are assassins, are at times unlikable, they’re always more evil men than them stalking the old west.

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