Yet, with the announcement of the inclusion of Patrick deWitt’s sophomore novel in the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, many a critic’s eyebrow was raised. The first western in the long history of the Prize to reach the shortlist, the novel was one of several the critics felt had edged out their particular favourites – namely Sebastian Barry (On Canaan’s Side), Alan Hollinghurst (The Stranger’s Child) and D J Taylor (Derby Day). It lead to these same critics accusing the judges of dumbing down the prestigious award to include popular rather than literary works.
The Canadian author did not win – that honour went, for the first time, to Julian Barnes and his literary The Sense of an Ending. But it mattered little – deWitt went on to collect the four major Canadian literary prizes and this bizarre, hugely enjoyable, darkly comic novel became a global best seller.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are notorious guns-for-hire in the Californian Gold Rush-era. The Commodore has sent them a thousand miles across the Oregon desert to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a man who has done him wrong.
Fighting, shooting, drinking, occasionally whoring their way west, Eli begins to question this way of life. Unlike his brother, Eli has a moral complexity – not particularly useful in the brothers’ line of work. Eli has become an assassin only as a result of his determination to be by his brother’s side, come what may. He had no calling. Thus, as the two slowly and methodically head towards their prey, he philosophises and daydreams of an alternative lifestyle, a General Store back home in Oregon with Charlie.
Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western as the two horsemen bicker their way across a land and environment where its kill or be killed. But the author counterbalances the harsh lifestyle with quirky, off-kilter humour where the overweight Eli has a compulsive desire to get rid of his money, find love and becomes an advocate of tooth powder and toothbrushes.
But whilst there are many laugh-out-loud moments, The Sisters Brothers is not a comedy. It’s a gritty story with many a shocking scene of death and mutilation as the two discover Hermann Warm is not the man the Commodore has painted him to be.
Eli may want this to be the last kill, but Charlie has no intention of giving it all up. He is ambitious and has an eye for giving orders, not taking them. And Warm, with his invention the Commodore quite simply wants, certainly seems to be offering the opportunity.
The Sisters Brothers epitomises picaresque with its extremely likeable anti-heroes and quirky Coen Brothers banter. A road story with a difference, it is gripping, darkly funny and wholly compelling.