Endearing Assassins

Bloody, funny wrangling over life’s biggest questions

The awards season has been kind to Patrick deWitt this year. His second novel, The Sisters Brothers, recently won the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and it was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Giller. On a promo on the CBC, staff at House of Anansi complained, with tongues firmly implanted in cheeks, that the book’s front cover would suffer for all the extra awards emblems they were forced to display. DeWitt’s novel has clearly enchanted Canada’s literary scene, and rightfully so. It is a provocative story—an innovative and playful western—that strikes a fine balance between the richly suggestive and the blazingly hard realities of a mean and dirty world.

The Sisters Brothers is the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two brothers who work as hired guns for the Commodore, a man whose shadowy presence colours the novel with the persistent threat of violence. The year is 1851, and Eli and Charlie must travel from Oregon City to the gold-induced frenzy of San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, an industrious and unusual chemist whose latest invention promises to make some men very rich. Charlie has been appointed the “lead-man” on this mission, much to the dismay of the sensitive Eli. But it makes sense, at least from the Commodore’s perspective, because Charlie exhibits a ruthlessness that Eli does not. Where Eli’s fierceness often grows out of a sincere desire to protect his brother, Charlie—who murders five men for the use of an axe—is vicious. His love of the gun rivals his love for his brother.

To this point, theirs has not been to question why, but through the narration of Eli, a not-so-young and not-so-slender introvert, we bear witness to the mindful reservations and hesitations of a man whose loneliness has begun to cripple him. And as the brothers travel further south toward their target, this anxiety only builds. Through a life that has been defined by the conscious and exacting elimination of so many others, Eli finds himself—perhaps unsurprisingly—craving connection. But, as for many of us, the desire and its achievement are not so easily reconciled.

Women pity Eli more than they love him. Men, mindful of the name Sisters, keep their distance. It is in a horse named Tub, a woebegone and bow-backed animal, that Eli begins to find some small measure of comfort. They are perfect foils, horse and rider, tired and ungainly, both with a mind for the restful life. Still, Charlie’s reticence isolates Eli and makes the sharing of dreams, however ordinary, a tortuous affair.

DeWitt gets the competitive tone and timbre of fraternal dialogue just right. Even when they argue, we sense the brothers’ stubborn comfort with each other:

“This is the worst I’ve ever felt from alcohol.”

“I drank the same brandy and I am not poisoned.”

“You did not drink as much as I did.”

“There’s no percentage in arguing with a drunkard as per whom should be blamed.”

“So I’m a drunkard, now.”

“I’m through with you for the day.”

Although there are the usual resentments, irritations and exasperations borne of any sibling bond, from the very beginning, deWitt shows us that love is not only possible but expected among even the roughest and gruffest of killers.

Early in their journey, Eli falls victim to an unfortunate succession of events: one morning, he is bitten by a large spider that has camped for the night in his boot; after recovering from the attendant fever, Eli’s head balloons to monstrous proportions due to an infected tooth. Through all of this, it is the otherwise cold and calculating Charlie who plays nurse to his brother—sitting alongside him through his feverish dreams, finding him anti-venom, bringing him to a dentist.

There is always something exciting about a story that is told with its eye focused on the villainous. It is not that it has not been done before; indeed, it is a fairly conventional trope in the modern western genre. (Think of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.) The Sisters Brothers is certainly spotted with a host of recognizable types: spacious skies, muddy trails, painted prostitutes, circled wagons, wealthy robber barons and whiskey-washed trysts. But what positions deWitt’s narrative as an especially successful example is its smart tribute to the convention itself, the way it playfully undercuts these stock images and suggests that in the midst of such cowboy adventurism, there is the inscrutability and comedy of real life.

“You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels,” says Eli with not a small touch of self-reflexivity. “Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, which is just what I did.” Eli is wrangling with his own characterization, mindful of the insidious possibilities of reducing a person to a mere whisper of his real self. It is as if in the cloud of violence that engulfs the novel, deWitt shows us that even writing—a consummately creative feat—can be a violent act if it trades in caricature.

It is ultimately the hilarious details that animate deWitt’s characters. Would you ever think an assassin to be so enamoured of the technologies of modern dental hygiene? Eli has never brushed his teeth in his life, but after receiving a free toothbrush and sample of mint tooth powder from his dentist, he begins to sermonize on the merits of daily oral care and that great “tingling feeling” it gives him. Ever conscious of his huskiness, Eli also tries to go on a diet, but with few options available this amounts to little more than meagre servings of boiled carrots intended as horse feed. But because of the author’s light touch—his refusal to linger more than necessary—such scenes become more than just running gags but modest and touching expressions of
self-betterment.

The best novelists learn not to tell too much. To do so eliminates our sense of wonder, our need to discover the vicissitudes of a world not wholly our own. Charlie and Eli encounter a crying rider on the trail, but we never learn what makes him so unbearably sad. A minor character who comes and goes in the space of a few pages, explaining nothing, this bawling cowboy becomes a sign of all we cannot know, a sign that some stories cannot be shared. By puncturing his story with this small unexplainable sadness, deWitt shows maturity as an author. It is a world more real and more rich because it unsettles us.

The Sisters Brothers does, at times, tease with melodrama. Characters who are otherwise toughly rounded sometimes push a little too hard toward sentimental resolutions. Indeed, the entire novel exudes a frontiersman-like drive toward redemption so that the protagonists’ moral progress can sometimes feel inelegant and overpower the grittiness of the story.

But this is also part of the point of the western—to create an allegory of progress, to make us feel all those complex and competing emotional impulses that once mixed together in our “settlement” of the West. In this purpose, deWitt is masterful.

This novel asks its readers to consider some of the most difficult questions: What forms must love take? What connections are possible when the world around us appears so vile? What solaces are there in redemption? Thoughtful and accessible, it is a novel that promises to provoke as much as entertain.