The Sisters Brothers is undoubtedly a western, but this is a western of the mind rather than of the landscape.
Set against the backdrop of the 1850s gold rush, the story is structured around an outwardly simple propulsive narrative, the book follows the narrator, Eli Sisters and his brother Charlie as they pursue a gold prospector, the wonderfully named Herman Kermit Warm who has been marked for death by their boss, the Commodore. The Sisters Brothers don’t know what Herman has done, they only know that he is a dead man, because the Commodore wants it that way and because they have been paid to kill him.
Their journey from Oregon City is a picaresque succession of adventures, fights and bizarre encounters with, among others, a perpetually weeping man; an abandoned boy in the woods and a less than salubrious saloon and whorehouse owner. These chapters are very short and episodic, often reading like a Coen Brothers film treatment for the western that Beckett never wrote, but they propel the action along as the brothers drink, dual and steal their way to San Francisco and their quarry.
What raises The Sisters Brothers above your usual adventure story is the character of Eli Sisters. The brothers may not ask many questions about the man they have been sent to kill, but Eli is asking plenty of questions about the man he has become. Through his narration, he reveals his concerns about the violent work he and his brother have been engaged in. It is not that he feels guilty as such, but he does seem to be suffering a spiritual ennui and dreaming of a quieter life, perhaps running his own shop. He is prone to nostalgia and deep thoughts not usually associated with the John Wayne’s of this world
The creak of bed springs suffering under the weight of a restless man is as lonely a sound as I know
He sincerely loves his brother, who seems like the more dominant of the two, but Eli’s moral struggle with his own temper and anger suggest that this might not actually be the case.
My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless……I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, why do I relish this reversal to animal?
Despite this, he is an endearing character. His emotional growth charted by his developing relationship with his horse Tub whom he knows he should swap for a better animal but feels he can’t because ‘he has been a faithful animal to me’. Although the book is about the relationship between the two brothers and Eli’s growing sense of self, much of the sentimentality comes from Eli’s growing love for the one-eyed Tub.
Eli starts to find meaning in the most fleeting of encounters with other characters – a bookkeeper at the whorehouse, a dentist who introduces him to a toothbrush and a little girl who may be an arsonist. He gives his money away to whomever will take it, he worries about his clothes and his weight and imagines a way out of the life he and his brother have created while hoping for a meaningful relationship with a woman.
I had never been with a woman for longer than a night and they had always been whores. And while throughout each of these speedy encounters I tried to maintain a friendliness with the women, I knew in my heart it was false, and afterward always felt remote and caved in. I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without rather than pantomime human closeness.
Eli is a modern mind in a historical setting and rather than jar, the juxtaposition brings a depth to what would otherwise be a rather predictable tale.
Charlie, on the other hand is Eli’s menacing foil. We never hear Charlie’s thoughts and just experience him through Eli but as Eli himself says,
Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.
A mean drunkard and quick to temper, Charlie enjoys the excitement of killing and the acquisition of money and relishes telling his brother that he is the ‘first man’ in the team. Charlie underestimates Eli and plays off his brother’s heartbreaking affection for him, but Eli is beginning to realise that he may be the better man.
Dewitt shows us that a painful childhood has made these men what they are, but as the book slows and comes to rest at the showdown with Warm, the reader comes to realise that this was a journey into the Brothers own hearts and lives, it becomes a chance for them to face up to their past and the consequences of their actions. The cleverly sketched vignettes of the journey fall away when the Brothers trace Hermit Warm and discover the reason the Commodore wants him dead. The surreal denouement by the banks of a river is a more sombre, serious affair as Eli and even Charlie realise that they have come full circle in their existence as men and as brothers.
It is a surprisingly moving ending to what starts out as a slight, amusing story. This is not a western to be read for historical accuracy. There is little evidence of any period research and the book is all the more effective for it. In the end, it is a story about human beings and their search for meaning and has some poignant truths about life and relationships at its core.
I lay in the dark thinking about the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.
My thanks to everyone who voted for The Sisters Brothers during last month’s Reading Roulette, I enjoyed it much more than I anticipated. And if you voted for The Thirteenth Tale instead, never fear as I am half way through it already!
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