2011 Shortlist – The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt

So far I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up two highly readable, engrossing novels from the 2011 long list. Hence the quick reviews being posted as I’m finishing them at a rapid rate. Surely I’ll come across a struggle sooner or later!!!

Well I’ll be darned – I believe we have our very first Booker Prize Long Listed Western. Dang, I could be wrong (as I haven’t read EVERY book on the Booker long/shortlists). In all honesty, a few pages in and I wondered why this had actually made the list of a Commonwealth Prize as it feels more in the style of a Pulitzer listed novel. Patrick deWitt hails from British Columbia (although now living in Oregon) so a Canadian entry for the prize.

If you can imagine Joel and Ethan Coen making a film from a script by Quentin Tarantino of a Western based on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” then you’d have part of the picture here. I’m only using film references as the book actually has “Intermissions”.

Eli Sisters is our narrator, with the tale commencing with him and his brother Charlie being engaged by the Commodore to kill Hermann Kermit Warm – a man “foolish enough to steal from the Commodore”. Here the travels commence both physically, and not on a horse with no name, and mentally as the brother’s search out the rogue prospector. A journey into Eli’s self discovery as much as it’s a journey across the Western plains to the Californian gold fields.

With short sharp chapters, a plethora of strange but believable characters (witches, lame horses, searchers of fortunes, Indians, maidens and of course cowboys), remembrances of more innocent times, high violence, noir images and black humour this is a highly enjoyable novel. Although I did read a review in “The Guardian” which slammed its “flat narrative style”. As Eli becomes more attached to his horse Tub (the only horse he’s ever owned with a name – “we did not believe in naming horses”) and as each conversation between the brothers flows we learn more and more about their characters and their past:

“You are always harking back in arguments, but another time is another time and thus irrelevant. Providence brought you that black horse. And what will become of the man who shuns Providence?”
“Providence has no place in this discussion. An Indian ate too much and died, that was the source of my good fortune. The point of my argument is that you were only keen on Tub’s departure when it suited you financially.”
“So I am a drunkard and a miser?”

Throw in a ferry called the Old Ulysses, a one eyed horse, un-named travellers (for example, weeping and mute, or barefoot carrying chickens), much merriment and continual drinking (or recovering from such) and I’m sure you could draw parallels to innumerable characters in literature.

I must admit the novel did fall a little flat between the middle sections as the ceaseless drinking, bickering, fighting, womanising etc. continued. But given the writing style it was quite easy to persist.

What will become of the man who shuns Providence? No spoiler alerts here – you’ll have to read it yourself.
I’d fully understand if lovers of fine high-brow literature (whatever that is) found this a tad base, graphically violent and unworthy of celebration, but on the other side of the coin, could it be time for us to start to embrace pulp noir fiction as part of the Booker canon?

I must admit I found this a highly enjoyable read, but to be honest it’s extremely unlikely that it will win the Booker gong and I would fully understand if it didn’t even make the short list. Something to read on a plane trip, just don’t laugh out loud, or squirm in your seat, too much!
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