Sisters Brothers – Patrick de Witt

26 January 2012
Sections 1-2
The most engaging thing about this book, right from the start, is the language. Or, rather, the mismatch between the language we might expect from Wild West lowlifes and what de Witt offers us. The book opens in Oregon in 1851, and the voice of the first-person narrator – one of two brothers whose reputation as hired assassins goes before them – consists of precise, educated-sounding cadences. I doubt whether a style of speech that sounds like the girl in True Grit was ever any kind of norm, but the language is highly engaging. I can see why de Witt would pastiche it, if that’s what he’s doing, and quite often it makes me laugh out loud.

There are other borrowings (or tropes, or whatever). It’s a journey, as full of strange encounters and episodes as something from Greek myth. There’s a witch-like old woman who seems to be able to see right inside their true selves, and who sets a kind of magical trap. There’s a portentous dream, and a quest for the pelt of a bear with bright red fur…. Two men are forced to spend weeks in one another’s company, and we can see how much they irritate one another. But they help each other out as well, routinely depend on each other for their lives. If we are to believe Eli, the one narrating this – a big if – Charlie’s behaviour is a constant disappointment to him. It’s another absurd mismatch: the way that Eli winces as Charlie tramples over the nuances of social interactions makes it easy to forget that both of them are killers. It’s another trope: we’re in Pulp Fiction territory, where it’s ok for men like this to pretend to hold themselves up as moral arbiters: the people they kill always somehow deserve it not because they have annoyed some Mr Big, but because they don’t live right.

We get our first insight into what this narrator is really like when he is threatened by a failed prospector in Section 2. The man jabs his rifle so hard into Eli’s leg, several times, that when Charlie shoots the top of the man’s head off Eli grinds his boot into the brains. He is so beside himself with anger – not the only time we witness this man who considers himself the more moderate of the brothers entirely losing control of himself – that he has to resort to a remedy recommended to him by his mother years ago: he masturbates. He refers to this as ‘compromising’ himself, an absurdly polite circumlocution given the scene we’ve just witnessed…. Later, near the end of Section 2, he and his brother use an old trick on four men threatening to shoot them. Eli will count to three and his brother and the men’s leader will draw. The trick is that on ‘One…’ they shoot the four men ‘simultaneously’. So it goes; any question of the ethics of their actions simply doesn’t arise…

…and as they leave the town, Charlie reminds Eli of how, when he was a boy and Eli no more than a baby, he shot their father. In his young opinion the man’s madness had reached an unacceptable level of violence: he had just broken their mother’s arm with a block of wood. It seems as though killing has always been an option for these boys, and we get an insight into their attitude to relationships. Their surname – feminine, intimate – is a joke. And what we’ve seen of Eli’s attempts to bond have been pathetic: before he meets the book-keeper – whose beauty and vulnerability are what attracts him to her – his second-rate horse is the only creature he shows real affection for.

So they are two psychopaths on a sloppy odyssey through spaghetti western territory, yes? Well, only up to a point. The morally bewildered Eli wants to live right. He is prepared to get on his brother’s nerves if necessary, performing random acts of charity for no reason beyond a desire to be helpful, and he is dotingly loyal to the rather pathetic horse he has ended up with. So, both before and after we are made aware of the violence of the life he leads, he seems sympathetic: de Witt has created a character who deserves to die, obviously, but one we will be sad to lose if that happens.

But what about the plot? So far it’s a single untidy thread: the Sisters brothers – their quirky name wrong-foots us, like most other things about them – are on their way from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill a man who has somehow disappointed their boss, the Commodore. Charlie, according to what he tells Eli, is to be the ‘lead man’. He is mean with money, prone to binge drinking, sarcastic… and completely loyal to Eli. In one of their first encounters, the threshold of the cabin they are in is cursed by the witch-like crone who had been living there. Charlie can climb through the window, but Eli’s belly is too big, so Charlie goes to find tools to smash the frame. He is prepared to kill four men to get them: so it goes, in this ethical universe, because Charlie is completely assured of the fact that they were to blame because of their lack of reasonableness.

They meet a starving boy, the last of a family of pioneers who have died or turned back. Eli helps him. They have further encounters with women: the rather attractive proprietor of a hotel for whose sake Eli tries to lose weight – until Charlie tells him she let him have paid sex with her while Eli was out finding morphine for Charlie’s ‘brandy-sickness’; and the book-keeper at the hotel in California. Eli really falls for her, and she appears to be reciprocating. The irony, in this story that is as full of fairy-tale elements as any others, is that while the brothers are coming to represent death stalking the land, she herself is dying of what appears to be consumption. She works for Mayfield, the big shot in the town, one they have met when they have sold him the elusive bear-pelt he had been wanting. It’s his men the brothers shoot – and then they take all his fortune. Rather than kill him – Eli seems to be as prepared for this to happen as Charlie is – they leave him with enough money to get to Oregon City. He wants to go there to take revenge on a man who once robbed him – and the joke is that they neglect to tell him that the man has been dead for six months….

Before this denouement, there is an ‘Intermission’ not long before the end of Section 2. Eli encounters a girl outside a house, and she seems terrified because she recognises the scene from a dream last night. There was the same dog, with what appears to be its leg detached from its body. There was the house – and there was a man like Eli who is ‘protected’. He likes the sound of this: he had crossed the cursed threshold to rescue his horse from a bear, so is feeling vulnerable. The girl continues: in the dream she was swept up into the air – and the dog was up there with her, dead. After the girl has left, Eli sees that the dog is lying motionless, foam around its mouth. It really is dead, and he realises the girl has poisoned it. So, in the Death stalks the land stakes, the brothers have a competitor.

Finally, for now. Early in the journey one of the first encounters is with a weeping man, leading his horse. Eli is sympathetic, but gets nothing from him. Ok. Now, in California, it suddenly dawns on him that the man he thought he recognised in the town earlier is the same man. And all we know is that this is not going to be a coincidence. I even wonder whether this might be the man they are after….

I don’t know yet whether this book is more than the sum of its parts, whether it’s more than a wry entertainment satirising the absurdity of the human condition. Maybe it will become clearer in Section 3.

28 January
Section 3, as far as the agreement near the beaver dam
This isn’t a road movie any more, and instead of stand-alone episodes we’re getting something like a plot. The brothers reach San Francisco, as weird as Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz – except it’s not about emeralds, it’s about gold. For a while things turn into a satire on the kind of rampant capitalism we might recognise. There are bubbles, restaurant meals at absurdly inflated prices, asset-stripping – and a ruined money-man throwing himself from a tall building. This is modern life in an alternative reality: there’s even a steampunk version of new technology in the form of a speaking-tube, complete with miraculous disembodied voice.

The plot involves even weirder science: in this world of spells and dreams, it’s apparently possible to create an alchemical formula that will make gold shine so bright you can just dig it up. The brothers don’t see this directly, because the narrative has taken a lurch in a different direction. They are supposed to meet Morris, the Commodore’s agent – we know about him already, and that he has found Herman Warm, the man who is now their target – but he has settled his bill and left the hotel before they arrive. This is a puzzle – but luckily, and preposterously, he has left a diary of his recent activities. This is what we read for a while, and it turns out he’s witnessed a demonstration of the magic formula, given by Warm himself. I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to see through the implausibility of this – if it works, why is its inventor always so down-at-heel? – or if we’re just to take it on board. It looks like a con-trick to me.

But, as I’ve been suggesting, we don’t really know what world de Witt has dropped us into. Everything about it from the way his characters speak in correct, considered English to the complete lack of topographical description – if you want sweeping cinematic landscapes from de Witt you’ve come to the wrong man – places this novel in a different world. The magical encounters make it into one where you might expect to find a character like Gulliver or Bunyan’s Pilgrim – and the impression is reinforced when, at last, the brothers begin to debate the rights and wrongs of what they are doing. Eli, growing more and more uneasy about murdering a man whose only crime seems to be his intelligence, reminds Charlie that it isn’t usually like this. In their previous job, all they had to do was kill some villains whose deaths made the world a better place. (He omits to say whether all their previous jobs have been so black-and-white.)

Eli insists to himself that Charlie is the heartless one, and that he has exploited his younger brother’s weakness – his tendency to be overcome by red rages. We’ve seen this before, and we see it again when they about to go in for another kill in this section. He describes how he goes outside of himself, to a different plane of consciousness.

Well, maybe he does, or maybe he is simply seeking ways to excuse his own murderous behaviour. All along, we’ve seen how keen he is to present his sensitive side to us, and one of my favourite things about the book is the way he so often manages to get us on his side. He tells us all about the death of Tub, his clapped-out horse, and he tells us how much it affects him. But in this section, as they pursue the two men to the Shining River (or something like that – and how Pilgrim’s Progress can you get?) we see how weak he is. They have a debate about what they should do, and it’s full of finely-tuned moral niceties. Except it isn’t really: once it comes down to practicalities, Eli is willing to allow himself to go into his altered state of consciousness with a view to killing the two men and stealing the formula. It will be so much tidier that way – but, whichever road this pilgrim is on, it’s not the one leading to the Celestial City.

Luckily Warm spots them before they spot him, and he has his gun ready. Luckily, again, he can’t take aim properly without falling backwards and… and so on. A series of errors plus, crucially, Eli staying Charlie’s hand, means that nobody gets killed. And, following an encounter in which they dispatch a murderous gang of blue-eyed brothers, they all agree to work together. Eli can’t quite reckon how this has happened, but it has. Will his vision of giving up the murdering life and settling down come to pass? Will the pale-faced book-keeper feature in this future? He has already referred to a time some months after these events, so… who knows? And who knows how we’ll feel about it?

30 January
Section 3 (cont) and Epilogue
How do we feel about it? Ambivalent. What did I say about Eli half-way through? ‘De Witt has created a character who deserves to die, obviously….’ But he doesn’t die. This flawed, affectionate, murderous sinner is repentant enough to be rewarded in Heaven – or the nearest he’s going to come to a heaven on earth. And, after never really believing all that stuff about Pilgrim’s Progress, I’ve just realised that this novel is a re-working of that book. At a Christian level – I’ve no idea whether de Witt is a Christian, but I’m willing to bet that he is – Eli has done enough to be redeemed. He has repented, confessed, and vowed to sin no more. His unrepentant brother has done no such thing – but he has lost his shooting hand, so the choice has been made for him. Praise the Lord.

Does this reading of the Epilogue really work? Charlie’s own greed brings about the accident that leads to the chemical burns on his hand, and his life can only be saved through its amputation. Fate, or whatever, has saved him from himself. Eli on the other hand (so to speak), needs no outside agency to force him into doing the right thing. He has wanted to get out of their homicidal line of work for some time now and, although he can see no way out of finishing this particular job, he seems to mean it. By the time he finds his way to the boss’s big house to kill him, the Commodore is Evil personified. (To make sure we get it, de Witt has Eli arrive just after the boss has finished forcing himself on the wife of one of his employees. And Eli overhears him in his bath, pontificating about how the greatness of a ‘great man’ is based on absolutely nothing, is a void that he steps in to fill.) Eli is able to drown him as he soaks. Not very Christian, perhaps – but somebody up there must like him, because it looks like an accident.

That sets up the final journey. The old homestead isn’t just the same as ever, it’s better, and their mother is still alive and welcoming. She knows what her sons are like, and forgives them. As Eli heads towards the bedroom he has an impression of blinding light. It’s a room that has been built on since they left, and another can be added for Charlie later because, as the man says in the Gospel according to St John, In my father’s house are many rooms…. (De Witt neatly gets over the problem of their irredeemable father being dead by having him crucified. When Eli first arrives at the house, he sees a scarecrow hanging in the garden dressed entirely in his father’s clothes. Go figure.)

So, yeh, that’s what it’s about. However flawed you are, and whatever you’ve done, there’s a place for you in your father’s house if you repent. The end.

Ok, but what about the Morris/Warm chemical formula plot? Not as neatly tidied up, I’d say, despite the convenient accident that brings Charlie’s killing days to an end. After the agreement near the beaver dam, Warm tells Eli about his life – and everything bad in it started with another irredeemable father. For the second time in Section 3, we’re in somebody else’s narrative, and I’m less clear about why this one’s here. If Warm represents anything at all on the brothers’ rocky road to redemption, it’s scientific pride. Destitution leads to a complete rejection of everything spiritual. As he gets filthier, he imagines himself composed of ‘human waste… My bones were solid excrement, my blood was liquid excrement….’ But he still has his brain, and is able to develop – what? What does this dedicated materialist’s formula come to represent but the shining temptations of wealth? He’s got to go.

So he does go, trying to rescue Morris, already blistered by his contact with the formula in the water, after he has fallen in. (Too many chance events, that might be my problem with this last section.) Morris dies first, horribly – he’s Vanity, in case you were wondering – and, almost delirious, Warm composes a memorial. Its last words, spoken with utter certainty, are a wholesale denial of God…. He dies shortly afterwards.

We’d known it wasn’t going to end well because Eli has already told us. Before people start dying, all four of them work together to pour two barrels of the formula into the pool. Eli describes a moment of total happiness – but he lets us know that this is the high point, that only death is to follow. Not that he and Charlie die, although I did wonder for a minute whether their arrival at their mother’s house might actually be an allegory of their deaths. What they get instead is a cleansing. Warm and Morris had not realised the importance of washing when they had used the formula before, but the brothers learn from the mistake and scrub their legs clean of the contaminated water.

And there are more important bits of cleaning up to be done. For a start, they lose almost all their ill-gotten gains, in three neat robberies: the bucket of gold from the river, the stash they stole from Mayfield, their savings in their shack in Oregon City. I can’t remember when they encounter the weeping man again – which makes three times – but he’s become a mute chorus. And there’s another chorus, in the form of a second ‘interlude’ with the toxic little girl. She does her best to poison Charlie – not Eli, notice, because he’s protected – and Eli stops him from taking the poisoned water she’s offered him. What would Bunyan have named her? Miss Judgment of the World? Whatever, we know from the incident with the dog what she does to damaged creatures. All they’re good for is death.

The only money they have left is the $100 Eli left with a whore to give to the book-keeper. She’s died, and Eli gets it back. So it goes – and how many times have I used that phrase? (Three – I counted.) And while they lose all their worldly goods, they gain something else. Early on I described their surname as a joke, but actually they do become more intimate, more openly dependent on one another as they reach the end of their return journey. Sure, a lot of it is down to Charlie’s injury: he is never going to be the dominant one again, and it’s all more equal between them now, Eli tells us some time after the events. In a sardonic aside as he grips his brother’s amputated arm he tells us that this is something he could never do while it was attached to the rest of him.

And once they get home there’s a return to the closeness of childhood. Their mother reminds Eli that they have always been inseparable and this is something we can believe from what we’ve seen. Somehow, the novel has to end exactly where it does. I wrote half-way through that we would be sorry if Eli were to die. Well, the bad guys didn’t get what was coming to them, and I’m feeling quite glad that they’ve both survived. Which is exactly how de Witt wants me to feel.

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