The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

January 31, 2012

For many of my childhood years, I owned two pairs of boots. One pair of boots was for “work” and the other was for Sunday. I always had a cowboy hat somewhere in my room, even if I only wore it occasionally. And I watched (in reruns) Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger after school. I reveled in the possibility of a familial connection, by marriage, to Wyatt Earp, the gunslinging lawman. Westerns were to me as wizards and vampires are to the last decade or two of our youth. The world of cowboys and indians was more exciting than the “real” world and, I assume crucially, there was a divide between good and evil. The faint imprints my youthful fascination with the Wild West left on my psyche must explain my otherwise inexplicably strong desire to read this book.

If you want to know whether you will like it, the best I can do is pass along good advice. Kevin from Canada found, via a Booker Forum poster, the best way to sort those who will like the book from those who will not (poster’s words, not KfC’s): “[I]f you like Coen Brothers movies[,] I guarantee you will enjoy the book “

I am not in the business of guaranteeing anything. I am an attorney, after all. However, your appreciation of Coen Brothers movies is about as reliable an indicator of your fit with this book as anything. I do like Coen Brothers movies and I liked the book.

The “Sisters Brothers”, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are hired killers. Charlie, the eldest, is the natural leader, the quickest with his guns, and the most psychologically fit for the profession. Eli is “a tall and heavy and rough-looking man” and, stereotypically, a bit slow. George Milton and Lennie Small come to mind, though Eli is not at all retarded, just neither as quick nor as cynical as his brother..

As the book opens, Eli is waiting outside the mansion of a wealthy man known as “the Commodore” while Charlie, inside, receives their latest assignment. The book recounts the brothers’ adventures on this latest job which, it turns out, will be their last for the Commodore. There are gunfights and fistfights, drinking and brothels, horses and gold. In other words, it possesses all the elements of a typical western.

The brothers are known more by reputation than appearance. More than once in the novel, one or the other frightens a would be harasser by announcing that they are Charlie and Eli Sisters, or “the Sisters Brothers”. Men of merely ordinary toughness do not quarrel with the Sisters brothers and, so, most of the brothers’ problems come from rough riders who start trouble not realizing who their “victims” are.

I do not now own a pair of boots, cowboy or otherwise, which hints at a truth: gunfights do not excite me the way they once did. This has more than that, though. The cliched western exterior is really a framing device for much more complicated story of brothers, getting along in the world, and morality. On their ride away from the Commodore’s mansion, Eli relates:

Charlie and I had an unspoken agreement not to throw ourselves into speedy travel just after a meal. There were many hardships to our type of life and we took these small comforts as they came; I found they added up to something decent enough to carry on.

This hint of distance from romanticized notions of the “Wild West” is made more explicit a little later:

You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and signing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, which is just what I did, without even eating a proper meal.

This nod to realism is almost immediately tempered with Eli’s near fainting spell caused by seeing a spider “on its back, eight arms pedaling in the cold air.” The cold-blooded killer is “afraid of spiders and snakes and crawling things.”

Charlie has his weaknesses too. Aside from the bottle, he is terribly superstitious, leading to a comedic scene which pays homage to Mark Twain.

For me, the threadbare humor of assassins with a scaredy-cat side were too easy and, at their best, only mildly amusing. The idea has been explored too thoroughly in animated features to retain much punch. And, yet, when Eli encourages himself after managing a fire, I smile:

‘Little victories’ my mother used to say, and which I then said aloud, to myself.

It works because it is incongruous and subtle. This does not have to be a joke. It could just be Eli recounting the reason he uses that phrase, but then he says it “aloud, to myself.” The joke is more about the need adults sometimes have of comforting themselves, aloud, as it is about a hulking character’s attachment to his mother. The juxtaposition of size and psychological vulnerability plays on a stereotype that does not hold, but most of us have, at some point, thought something and then, the effect of recalling or thinking it being insufficient, we have spoken it to ourselves.

These light touches are what separate the book from mere “rollicking adventure”.

Charlie is never developed with much depth. He is quick on the draw and remorseless. Eli is a different animal. He longs to open a small store selling hats or hardware or chicken feed. While adept with rifle, pistol, and fist, he tends to the contemplative and the sentimental. He becomes attached to his run-down horse, Tub.

I sensed in him a desire to improve himself, which perhaps was whimsy or wishful thinking on my part, but such are the musings of the traveling man.

His mother is often in his thoughts and he draws a line between, essentially, civilians and combatants. The former he spares when he feels he can.

But this last is important. The book is not divided between “good guys” and “bad guys”. Most everyone is at least a bit bad, including, obviously, the professional killer who narrates the book. In other words, the characters are people, not exemplars of either virtue or vice. While deWitt is not blazing new ground here, the compromised protagonist being somewhat a staple in western films from John Wayne to The Unforgiven. The difference, though, is that Eli is not the toughest man in the story like Wayne’s and Eastwood’s characters nor is he somewhat reluctantly fighting the good fight. Eli is working at a profession he fell into by virtue of being Charlie’s brother. He is not conflicted about it nor does he console his conscience with the redeeming fact of bringing truly bad men to justice. He kills for money, not for merit. His kindness is mere recognition of common humanity rather than commitment to any ideal.

Eli takes the small comforts of life as he can find them. He is, in that sense, fiercely ordinary. Amid the violence and gags, deWitt draws this everyman with a sometimes startling sensitivity. Like the majority of people, Eli does not revolt against the world or the circumstances in which he finds himself. Rather, he ekes out of his existence the pleasures that he can and, without the irony of Kilgore Trout, ignores as best he is able the things he cannot change. But Eli’s lack of irony is not shared by deWitt. When a prospector offers them coffee, Eli accepts.

[M]y cup held earth and hot water, nothing more. I believe the man, through some lonely prospector mania, had begun brewing dirt and tricking himself into believing it was coffee. I had a mind to broach the subject with him but he was so pleased to be sharing, and I did not want to upset his pride; at any rate, who did I think I was to try and undo what had surely taken many days and nights to become fact for him?

This “live and let live” attitude should be startling coming, as it does, from a hired killer. By this point in the book, though, we know Eli too well. He has his own illusions, illusions he nurses and would not want taken from him. As we see with his horse, he empathizes with his fellow creatures and admires their attempts to “better” themselves. These glimpses of the everyman struggling with the world are, actually, much more exciting than the gunplay. It is a struggle for good and evil that is inside us all, a struggle with no clear winner (though sometimes a clear loser). This fight of Eli’s is both less grand than those fought by the celluloid heroes of my youth and more profound. Eli’s is the common struggle to make the best of an often harsh world.

I am glad this made it into the Tournament of Books, though I do not expect it to have much success. It is the type of book that ought to be included and ought not to make it too far.

*A pet peeve: At least twice in the novel, there are sentences like: “Charlie led Nimble out and stood beside Tub and I.” On the one hand, perhaps this jarringly ungrammatical construction (“..stood beside me….beside Tub and ME!”) is meant to convey our narrator’s cowboy education and the ineptness of his attempts to sound learned. But, other than some non-standard punctuation, I didn’t notice other signals that the narrator was trying but failing to speak with a cultured voice. I am reading too much into this, too little? Is it just pedantry to notice such things and grate one’s teeth? Did people in the 1880s even develop the tendency to overcorrect the ungrammatical locution “Me and John went to the store” as so many modern day speakers have? I thought that was a more recent phenomenon. These are the kinds of things I actually wonder about while reading. Please tell me that I am just being obtuse in not seeing deWitt’s brilliant purpose here, that there is a good reason for the incorrectly objective “Tub and I”.

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

August 30, 2010

I was lucky enough to pick the winner of this year’s IMPAC award and, thereby, won (along with two others) Kevin from Canada’s 2010 IMPAC contest. In addition to the generosity of giving out prizes, Kevin kindly offered to expose me to Canadian fiction. I eagerly accepted and specifically requested that this book be among the titles he sent.

I had only ever heard of this book through Kevin’s coverage, as a member of the always excellent Shadow Jury, of the 2009 Giller Prize. His review captures the quirkiness and strengths of the book. It does have strengths besides its quirkiness, though the quirkiness is a strength too. I had not re-read the review until just now, partly with the aim of not simply repeating it and partly with the aim of engaging in at least a bit of conversation. Also, my comments here also reflect my conversations with my significant other who grabbed this book out of the shipment immediately and enjoyed it immensely. She liked the way the incident reports become more personal and begin to reveal the narrator as a character rather than as simply a recorder of events. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Kevin has summarized the book well, so I encourage you to visit his review, but I will try to give a shorthand version, for context.

The book consists of 144 incident reports by a librarian, Miriam Gordon, working in a Toronto library. The first incident report recounts Miriam’s interaction with a young man who spends two hours stripping electrical wire and then asks for a handheld vacuum to clean up the mess he has made. The first several incident reports relate events similar to this in that they are seemingly unconnected to plot issues or Miriam beyond her duties as a librarian. Gradually, however, Miriam begins inserting personal details into the reports and embellishing them with memories from her childhood. Martha Baillie pulls this aspect off quite well, I thought, methodically building a plot into these often quite short incident reports.

There are at least three major plot lines. One involves Miriam’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father. Another involves a mysterious library patron who begins leaving notes referencing the opera Rigoletto which, incidentally, is the first opera Miriam ever saw. The very short summary of the opera is that the father’s plot to avenge his daughter’s honor results in a mistake of identity that gets her killed. It soon becomes clear that the Rigoletto notes are meant for Miriam. The grow more sinister over time. There is also Miriam’s interactions with a young man she first sees reading in the park.

The plotlines all seem disaparate and unconnected, like the initial incident reports. However, over the course of this quick read (195 pages, most less than half full) patterns and links begin to form. The effect is one of literary pointillism, almost. It is a quite original approach and Baillie carries it off well. But, given the method of narration and Miriam’s limited knowledge, it is difficult to determine whether any of the connections or patterns are real or only imagined. One patron seems a good candidate to be the mysterious writer of the Rigoletto notes, and then, seems not to be such a likely candidate or is ruled out entirely.

Incident Report 10 is a key to at least two of the plotlines. Miriam relates the story of her first broken heart and her reaction after the breakup by phone.

I rushed out the front door without stopping to pull on my coat or boots. The freezing air slapped my cheeks: it plunged down my throat into my unsuspecting lungs. My father, who happene to be clearing the front walk, tossed aside his shovel and ran after me across the lawn, his feet breaking the crust, sinking into the deep snow. When he’d caught up, he took me in his arms. I present this memory in my father’s defense whenever I take him to trial, as I so often do, laying my fears and shyness, my crippling self-doubt, at his feet.

After this experience, Miriam is wary of romantic love and, as indicated, has mixed emotions regarding her father. Miriam’s relationship to men is, it seems to me, a primary factor in the book. The emotion of this short and quirky novel is subtly potent, creeping up slowly on the reader as the storylines unfold. The parade of eccentric patrons, for instance, marches through the story to the yearning beat of the human heart.

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump palm of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her.

This small events, when compiled, begin to tell us about Miriam, almost as much as her own more explicit discussions of herself and her mental state. She is an easy character to like. This is often a weakness in a novel, but the beauty of this novel is in its construction and in the events. The world is a tragic place for many of the patrons, despite their kindness. So too, Miriam, as gently caring as she is, has suffered. Her role is not unlike that of the heros of Greek tragedies and her heart is her weakness. Her very likeability, even lovableness, is her fatal flaw.

Kevin from Canada did not like the storyline involving the Slovenian named Janko who Miriam befriends. I thought the storyline was essential to the successful unfolding of the full plot, that it added some needed complexity to the mix, and hit the right emotional notes. This may be where you (and Kevin) realize that I am perhaps a bit more sentimental as a reader than is Kevin. I was pulled in by the relationship between Miriam and Janko and touched by its resolution. I cannot imagine being as satisfied with the book without it.

Before closing, I would also like to note the beauty of the novel as a physical object. The paper is thick and pleasing to the touch. Even more, the inside of the covers contain a reproduction of actual pages that were inserted into the book return slot of a library. The pages are covered with the series “0123456789” repeated over and over. Interestingly to me, the actual photocopy of the page shows that, despite the obsessiveness of the pages’ author, there are apparent mistakes a few times, where a number is repeated at the end of a line or from one line to the next, suggesting to me a fragility of mind that prevents the poor soul from effectively managing even this pitiable scream. It was a nice touch that emphasized the novel’s realism and tethered this story to the world. Damaged people reach out, often ineffectually, and it is not always easy or possible to understand their cries, much less to ease their pain. The physical construction of the book reminds me why my ereader is not a substitute for my physical library, only an enhancement.

Thank you, Kevin, for introducing me (and my wife) to this author and this book.