Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers
House of Anansi, 2011
So I’m chatting about this book, about the scene with the ‘dentist’, and I announce that I agree that it’s unfair that he doesn’t get paid for his ‘services’, but dismiss it quickly by saying that at least they didn’t kill him.
They? Eli and Charlie, the Sisters brothers.
And in only a few pages they have taken my moral compass and given it a good spin.
I pay my bills on time and relocate earthworms stranded on the sidewalk in a heavy rain, but somehow Patrick deWitt has got me hooked on Eli, hired killer in arrears for dental work, in four scenes.
Could be because Eli is questioning his lifestyle (and that must have been in progress before we were introduced, before that whole mess with the tooth mending).
Readers know this because, after they go shopping for new clothes (see, there’s something for every reader in this tale), Eli muses with Charlie about the possibility of retirement.
“‘I believe I could settle into a life like that. I sometimes think about slowing down. Didn’t it seem pleasant in there? Lighting the lamps? The smell of all the brand-new goods?’
But Charlie isn’t having any of that. He shakes his head.
“‘I would go out of my mind with boredom. That mute girl would come rushing out of her hole for the hundredth time and I’d shoot her dead. Or I would shoot myself.'”
(And maybe it is unrealistic. I mean, Tony Soprano wanted out the minute he saw those ducks in his pool, but that’s not what happened either. A life of crime is not easily left behind.)
My allegiance to Eli is not uncomplicated. But even though he’s killed a few people…
And there it is again. I’m right there, ready to make excuses for this man, ready to want something more for him or, at least, something different.
When I was reading this bit of the novel, I felt like it was stealing my wishes for Eli:
“You are a better man than this. Come with me into the world and reclaim your independence. You stand to gain so much, and riches are the least of it.”
And why? Honestly, I don’t want to think about it too much.
This is not going to be one of my more analytical responses to the Giller longlisted books.
Because I rarely fall so hard into a book. And, when it happens, I want to let that glow linger.
[Quick guess? Skillful character development, emphasizing not only admirable qualities (e.g. loyalty, generosity, rigid adherence to a personal moral code), but a querying approach to life and its meaning, accompanied by a mounting desire to change.]
And my reading of this book was the kind of reading where you stop looking at the clock. The kind of reading you think of when you think of reading on summer holidays as a kid.
“…we were outside of time, is how it felt to me; our experience was so uncommon we were elevated to a place where such concerns as minutes and seconds not only irrelevant but did not exist.”
Yup, call me subjective. Call me hooked. I’m a bit horrified to find myself saying so, but The Sisters Brothers was relentlessly entertaining and I think it should be taught in grade schools across the country. (There’s that moral compass again.)
[And, yes, there is some complexity here, easily overlooked thanks to the story’s fast-paced storyline and Eli’s darkly comic perspective on the world. It centres around the idea of fractures and mending — here’s where I would put a spoiler if I was going to do that kind of thing — spanning years and situations. It’s a fine line between destroying and cleansing — here’s where I could mention dental hygiene, fires, and mean people getting what was coming to them — and so many different kinds of poisons in a person’s life. Yes, there is some layering to the tale that might be worth exploring on another pass. One in which I wasn’t so completely caught up in Eli’s voice.]
The demographic of men searching for meaning is well represented on the Giller shortlists. As are battles of conscience. Death in numbers. That’s good too. But the Booker attention may have drained this title’s Giller-bility.
All about the inner workings of Eli Sisters. With the exception of two brief intermissions, the structure is straightforward. Primarily scenic. Most significant episode of the brothers’ past is relayed through direct dialogue.
Western frontier. 1850s. Briefly in SanFran, with so many “ships at anchor that their masts looked to be tangled impossibly; hundreds of them packed together so densely as to give the appearance of a vast, limbless forest rolling on the tides. ”
Peculiarly Eli. Strangely rough and formal at the same time. Direct. That quote about San Francisco above is one of the only figurative bits in the novel (which might have seemed out of place except that it reflects Eli’s out-of-place-ness perfectly).
It’s All-Eli-All-the-Time. Readers who do not respond to him in twenty pages aren’t likely to change their opinion as the story unfolds. Not saying you have to like him, exactly, but if, as he said, you don’t understanding his laughing, it’ll be a long, hard read for you.
You understand that characters are not to be confused with guests at a dinner party: you needn’t like them. You like horses. The underdog usually gets your vote, at least to start with. You’re willing to get your hands dirty when you’re reading.