Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Patrick deWitt's "The Sisters Brothers": Book Review

His experimental debut "Ablutions" demonstrated deWitt's invention of a compelling narrative voice; this second novel reveals his ability to channel depth into what at first may seem a satirical Western. While the reason Eli and his brother Charlie must hunt down Herman Kermit Warm delays its gradual impact until about two-thirds into the plot, it's compellingly built up through vignettes slyly letting us view as if in documentary fashion the frequent brutality and occasional (thanks more to understated Eli) compassion allotted those who have the often bad and terminal luck to stumble into their path.

An Indian fallen off of his horse, a testy tycoon of a tiny town named after him, a pair of duels--the first witnessed, the second enacted-- and some hospitable ladies at certain hotels occupy the few events, which transpire at a slow pace of a frontier era: sudden bloodshed, frequent boredom. There's a restless, itchy refusal among many here to stay put for long. Eli analyzes Gold Rush "hysteria": it's a "seductive notion" to seek fortune among the "unlucky masses hoping to skin or borrow the luck of others." For Eli, luck is not discovered but "earned or invented through strength of character. You had to come by it honestly; you could not trick or bluff your way into it." (116) For all his misdeeds, Eli possesses a moral code he tries to follow.

Asked about his calling, Eli responds: "'Each job is different. Some I have seen as singular escapades. Others have been like a hell.' I shrugged. 'You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability. In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a life entrusted to me." (139) This displays the tone of his Victorian-meets-American speech, slightly formal to us, measured and carefully parsed even among the less educated. As Charlie recalls of his brother from their youth: "you were always off in your private world of thoughts, quiet in the corners." (166)

The hired pair's trail takes them from Oregon City, 1851, down to San Francisco. In a short scene, deWitt conjures up the City. Ships crowd the harbor, anchored as their cargoes rot, their crews having abandoned them to rush into the gold fields, "hundreds of them packed together so densely as to give the appearance of a vast, limbless forest rolling on the tides." (171) Warned by a solitary dock stroller of the City's "madness of possibilities," the prospect of San Francisco looms. The man lingers. "A single pistol shot was heard in the distance; hoofbeats, a woman's scream, which turned to cackling laughter. 'A great, greedy heart!' he said, and then walked toward it, disappearing into it." (176) Entering this "wild time here" chills Eli and we the readers even before the brothers leave its beach.

Charlie notes as a fourth prospector along the way looks sorry: "It would seem to me that the solitude of working in the wilds is not healthy for a man." (230). There's no romanticism in deWitt's vision but neither is there an easy lurch into cynicism. Instead, this resembles a series of stolid, caustic tintypes.

When again Eli must confront once more the situation he and his brother enter, as they eke out their living by ensuring the dying of others, he lets us into his transformation. "My very center was about to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its content ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle, or I become my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wanted." (246)

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, The Sisters Brothers improves on Patrick deWitt's debut. While facile criticism may equate this to a snarky take on the Western genre, its carefully measured stance and attentive prose style demonstrate a writer concerned with morality as well as entertainment. (Amazon US 7-7-13)

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