Friday, February 24, 2012

Ferocious and Precocious: Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers

Author Patrick deWitt.

Since I’ve begun writing for Critics at Large it’s become apparent that negative reviews garner a lot more attention than positive ones. Since I love attention, I had my mind made up to dislike this novel. I thought it was a sure thing. Superficially, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, 2011) is a violent, empty western, dominated by male characters and curtly short chapters. But ultimately, it’s an insightful novel filled with the themes that drive each one of us – family, money, sex and the pursuit of happiness. There are some parts where I cackled garishly; others where I clutched the book to my chest with an understanding sigh.

Having a brother myself, one of the things I most understood was the tacit communication between the Sisters brothers. Throughout the narrative, Eli and Charlie simply have to look at each other to have a conversation. For professional hit men who often find themselves in complicated situations, this is a real asset. Because they are family, the relationship between Eli and Charlie is complex and deWitt does a superb job of depicting this relationship. Particularly in the opening chapters, the characterization of the Sisters brothers is magnificent. We’re naturally drawn to Eli, who narrates the story and attempts to villainize Charlie. However, since deWitt paints Charlie as so full of the logic that Eli seems to lack, it’s impossible to wholeheartedly accept Eli’s portrayal of Charlie as bad guy. Within a few short pages, the reader is shown insights into both Eli’s and Charlie’s individual personalities as well as the way they interact. Eli himself says it best early on as he ponders “the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.”

It’s not until the novel is almost over does Eli realize “it doesn’t matter what we do. Money comes and goes.” Between the opening chapter and the final scene, Eli and Charlie Sisters devote a lot of attention to money: talking about it, spending it, robbing people for it, finding it, hiding it, losing it. Their quest for riches also becomes a quest for debauchery and drunkenness (Charlie) and love and self-affirmation (Eli). They meet an interesting cast of characters along the way, but my one major complaint about the book is the lack of believable female characters. Yes, I realize it’s a Western set 150 years ago, but surely there were frontier women who weren’t greasy-haired servants, tawdrily made-up prostitutes or bedridden mothers. Yet, from reading this novel, you’d assume there were not.

Eli, though, does meet one particular woman with whom he thinks he’s found true love. He must leave her to continue his journey to assassinate Herman Kermit Warm, but he vows to lose weight (many characters comment on his sizable paunch) before he sees her again. This is one manifestation of Eli’s tendency towards self-improvement – although the concept doesn’t manifest itself much, he often thinks and talks about it. In fact, the theme of personal evolution runs throughout the book. It’s a universal truth that most people want to improve their lives in some way. Patrick deWitt cleverly brings the modern maxim ‘you can never be too rich or too thin’ to life in this historical novel. In setting The Sisters Brothers during the California Gold rush, deWitt subtly makes the point that our world has not changed so much in over 150 years.

Originally told and vividly executed, the novel’s thematic persuasions are clear and character development is strong. But the structure of The Sisters Brothers befuddles me, which is not to say I’m dissatisfied, just mystified. There are two things in particular that I still cannot figure out, even after rereading the pertinent passages several times:

Why are there two 'Intermissions'?
At about the midway point, and again towards the end, deWitt provides readers a diversion from the main action to learn about Eli’s (imagined?) encounter with a young girl. There’s a Freud-like dream reference, a three-legged dog, attempted murder by poison, an ominous grey-black cloud and an allusion to Eli as a “protected man”. With all these elements, the intermissions must mean something. I have no idea what.

What is the significance of the weeping man?
At the onset of Eli and Charlie’s journey, the brothers meet a stranger on the road, crying and alone, who they dub “the weeping man”. They invite the fellow to eat lunch with them, he begrudgingly does and they set off on separate ways. The Sisters brothers come across many strange characters in their journey and if it weren’t for the fact that this weeping man appears briefly, randomly and without explanation, at key points throughout the novel, I would think nothing of it. But as it is, the weeping man must mean something. I have no idea what.

Evidently, there are things about this book that keep me up at night. It’s a gritty read, raw without making immediate sense. And like any truly great novel, this book reflects life.

Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.


  1. Mari-Beth,
    I very much enjoyed this book as well – it was entertaining and subtly comedic.

    The intermissions and the weeping man are mystifying indeed. Perhaps both can be explained if we accept Eli as a feeler (rather than a thinker). In narrating the book, he might observe those instances that touch him, without having them be part of the logical flow of his story. The characterization of Eli is, as you say, magnificent. His affection towards his horses, and the kind manner in which he engages with (most) people along the journey, make Eli incredibly endearing. I’m not sure he villainizes Charlie though; I would say he both praises and condemns his brother's merciless attitude toward killing, yet accepts and loves him ceaselessly.

    Also, I love a curtly short chapter. Nothing draws me in like curtly, short chapters. Other things I loved: every toothbrush scene, Tub, and the old-timey language. Thanks for sharing this website with me – this post gave me food for thought for our next book club meeting!

  2. I am not sure, but I believe that the weeping man was the father of the young boy that the Brothers encountered - he is weeping because of the guilt of leaving his son to die alone in the wilderness.

  3. Thanks Mari-Beth...the reason I came upon your review is because I've been searching online to see if anyone has written about the Freudian undertone throughout the book, and yours is the only review I've read so far that mentions Freud. The dream sequences certainly are very Freudian, as is the sibling rivalry (and, a stretch, the choice of Sisters for their last name). But that's only the beginning. Most significantly, Eli kills their father (to save their mother). Further, they kill the Commodore (who in some way can be thought of as their replacement father). The Commodore is why they are on their quest (which, of course, like all quests, turns out to be more about self-improvement), and as such wields great power over the brothers. Along the way, they come upon others who have ended up in their current positions from unlikely paths: Kermit Warm himself, and the dentist. It really leaves me wondering what happens to these guys when the story ends...Looking at it as a quest, Eli's real quest is one of eventually settling down with a wife. Settling down seems straight forward enough, but he struggles with finding a wife. Each of the women he considers has a tragic flaw. In the end, his quest takes him back to...wait for it...his mother.
    Anyway, back to Freud. The symbols of others' power are so easily taken from them: the dentist's medicine, Mayfield's fortune...both robbed in a matter of minutes, the brothers themselves ultimately lose everything they stole, Kermit Warm's discovery literally kills him. For all but Kermit Warm, what they lose is what they gained by fraud, thieving, and/or killing. They're like the dog in the dream, chewing on the its own leg bone. So why does Kermit deserve the same fate? He worked hard, after all. True, he worked hard and was quite clever to invent his formula. His goal, though, was to do away with hard work, and, by the logic of the book, he would have to fall. Thanks again for your review!

  4. In the first intermission the dog symbolizes Eli. The fact that the dog is missing a leg but it has since been healed. It is an old wound. Eli also has an old wound as he experiences his brother killing his father.

    This is not the first time in the novel animals are used to symbolize Eli or Charlie. Eli's horse Tub is awkward, slow, a big like his owner. Charlie's horse nimble on the other hand is quick, able, and strong, like Charlie.

    Also the characters we find along the way are "periodic characters." Simply put there to set the setting. During the California gold rush people would make lots of money in a quick period of time and then lose it just as fast. The poor were depressed and the rich would be soon.

  5. I disagree with the dog symbolizing Eli in the intermission. I believe that Eli was the girl. The dog was premonition of Charlie, who Eli both hates and knows is hurting, and in his own, skulking and enabling way, has protected, swirling in death. In the end, and without a hand, Eli stays his own hand in the inevitable trajectory of the gentle goaded rage of which his brother has taken advantage. He finds peace with loss, and loses his identity in the relationship, and the relationship, to a degree.

  6. I see the girl and the witch as one and the same. Eli passes under her beadwork to shoot the bear, which Charlie believes to be a curse, but is actually a charm - as the girl later tells him in the intermission that he is 'protected'. This is why he is the only one to come out of the River of Light debacle unscathed. The dog missing its leg and Charlie losing his hand are parallels. When Eli knocks away same poison that had killed the dog he immediately asks 'am I still protected', but he has spent his protection here and no longer is. This, in turn, parallels that he is no longer under his brother's protection as well.

    As for the crying man, I still haven't worked that out, but I like the theory of him being the boy in the caravan's father who has abandoned him. I think there is something in Eli's originally wanting to help the man and share their lunch and then by the end of the novel him throwing a stone at the crying man.