I've not come to adore Westerns through the traditional means. I was not weaned on a diet of John Wayne and Bonanza. Growing up, those dusty ranches a...moreI've not come to adore Westerns through the traditional means. I was not weaned on a diet of John Wayne and Bonanza. Growing up, those dusty ranches and hard-bitten cowhands seemed too similar to the world as it appeared in the town around me to keep much of a hold upon my imagination. I was always more into interstellar travel than I was in leading a wagon train over the Rockies, more George Lucas than Louis L'Amour, or at the least more Kurosawa than Leone. You would never find me spitting chew at a rodeo.
Yet somehow along the way those borders between genre fiction started melting away for me. I could appreciate that Han shooting Greedo is an entry in a long canon of gruff antiheroes attempting to live in a lawless world according to an unstated moral code of their own, first of whose silent proclamations reads "survive at all costs." Moral flexibility! Ain't it grand?!? We can root for both Cristian Bale, the honest homesteader, and Russell Crowe, the outlaw with a heart of gold, without necessarily addressing the dicey choices that have brought both men to such desperate measures.
This is a worthwhile point of view to bring into Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a novel so cinematic in its renderings that I have been helpless to deny the incessant Hollywood allusions plaguing me as I concoct this review. There are no white knights within these pages though, just fellow humans all struggling to claw their way to the top of the dung heap. The titular siblings, Eli and Charles Sisters, are shooters for a West Coast power broker known only as The Commodore (a name which couldn't help but make me think of James Coburn every time he was mentioned). As oddball duos in fiction are often known to be, Charles feels a natural affinity for the work of assassination, never batting an eye when breaking an oath or beating a woman, while younger brother Eli finds himself questioning his occupation for the first time as he and his brother journey from Central Oregon to gold rush-era San Francisco and dreaming of a day when he may hang up his spurs for good.
Strangely, what this book reminded me of the most (outside of all the literary allusions to McCarthy and Faulkner that are lobbed its way) is Jim Jarmusch's 1995 oddball Johnny Depp Western, Dead Man, with accompanying Crazy Horse soundtrack. There's the wanton disregard for natural life, when an entire family of beavers are poisoned by toxic runoff, there are psychotic fur trappers, and, of course, there are more corrupt men and women than you'd find outside of a James Ellroy novel. This is a blessing and a curse, though, as readers can thrill on DeWitt's particular renditions of these genre tropes while at the same time reconciling themselves to the knowledge that nothing too unpredictable will happen.
Still, with all of this fantastic window dressing, at times I found myself flipping ahead to see how many more pages I had in each (admittedly short) chapter. The pages with Eli questioning his motives for being a hired gun can get to be especially tedious, if only because the arguments evinced are as familiar as the very necessity of having a fallen character seeking redemption for readers to relate to. An enormously fast read, and one which I am certain to recommend to my book group next month, it leaves me, more than anything, interested in what Patrick DeWitt will write for us next.(less)