Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Sisters Brothers/ Patrick deWitt

This is on my

Aug. 31 The Sisters Brothers: I cut out this National Post book review “A Western that charts fresh new territory” by Michael Christie on May 28, 2011.  He reviews the book The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.  Here are some excerpts:

And most importantly, what he does get right are the flawed and jagged hearts of his characters, which is all the real this reviewer needs.

What Western is real anyway? Aren’t they all revisions and stylizations of the past? From the kindergarten morals and the ridiculous bloodlessness of Hollywood Westerns, to Louis L’Amour’s pat Harlequin Romances for men, to the populist machismo of spaghetti Westerns and their impossibly slow gun duels, the genre has never registered very high on the reality scale.

This novel follows two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, infamous assassins sent on an errand to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, an ingenious (and, as it turns out, extremely likable) man, who is accused of stealing from their boss, a fearsome figure named the Commodore. Luckily for us, the genre permits deWitt to turn his considerable powers loose, allowing him to rummage the treasure chest of English with much less constraint than a story staged in the contemporary world.

People with unspeakable pasts and damned futures — full of equal measures depravity and virtue — who long ago came apart and simply kept going. He also manages nicely to fry some bigger thematic fish in the process. Of San Francisco, Charlie notes, “It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busily burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding,” offering perhaps the best description of America I’ve read in years.

At the book’s centre is Eli, the narrator and softer of the two, certainly the most endearing character. We learn early that Eli’s heart has never really hardened to killing, and the soul of the book lies in his emotional thaw.

deWitt’s Dostoyevsky-like renderings of a mind that knowingly does wrong are where his writing really soars. “My very center was beginning to expand as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless.”

Eli is an increasingly sensitive man in an insensitive world, and even begins to pity his disabled horse, Tub, an unheard of thought-crime in the Old West. This is a contemporary mind dropped into a historical situation, but who cares about accuracy,
because Eli’s mounting compassion for the one-eyed animal is perhaps the most touching aspect of the novel.

Patrick deWitt: Here is the National Post interview with the author on the same date.

Patrick deWitt was rummaging through unwanted treasures at a yard sale a few years ago when he came across The Forty-Niners, a weathered, leather-bound volume in Time-Life’s Old West series, which is the kind of thing one only finds at yard sales. It was a history of the men, women and children who journeyed to California in the mid-19th century seeking fortune. While the writing was unremarkable, the images caught deWitt’s eye: daguerreotypes of old miners and grizzled prospectors, ships abandoned in San Francisco’s harbour by crewmen off to strike it rich, and other scenes of the gold rush. The book cost 25¢. He bought it.
At the time, deWitt was just starting work on his second novel. A few years earlier, he’d written the words “sensitive cowboy” in his notebook — an idea which eventually spawned a fictional conversation between two bickering outlaws, but nothing more. 

He “mutilated” the book, posting the pictures on a corkboard above his desk, and began to write. Over a number of months, these two cowboys came to life, first becoming siblings and ultimately The Sisters Brothers, the name of deWitt’s recently released novel.

The cowboy is one of the most reliable archetypes in American pop culture; the word conjures up both bandits like Billy the Kid or Jesse James and actors like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, novels such as Lonesome Dove or True Grit and films such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The Sisters Brothers, however, turns the stereotypical cowboy on his hat.

The novel tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two cowboys of indiscriminate age, who also happen to be killers-for-hire. They are also troubled men: Charlie, a charming psychopath capable of ending a life as quickly as downing a shot of brandy, is a drunkard; Eli, who narrates this outstanding novel, is a cowboy unlike any other. “I am not any one thing,” he says at one point in the novel, and it’s true: He’s a lovelorn fool, a neurotic cowboy self-conscious about his weight, a killer unsure about killing, and, most of all, an endearing, if conflicted, man.

“I wanted to subvert the character of the Western hero, and neurosis is really underwritten in Westerns — it doesn’t really exist,” deWitt says on the phone from his home in Portland, Ore. (he’s bounced back and forth between Canada and the United States since being born on Vancouver Island 36 years ago). “Everyone knows exactly who they are, and they don’t really doubt themselves — unless they’re a coward.”

He subverts other aspects of the Western, a genre with a very specific iconography and set of traditions: the duel, the man in black, the lone gunman. For deWitt, breaking these traditions was part of the appeal.

“I enjoyed coming at something that was already sort of realized, and already fully formed, as a backdrop … and then to fill it in however [I] wanted to fill it in,” he says. “Approaching something that’s already been addressed so many times was sort of a challenge, but also comforting, in some ways.” That said, the novel features a duel, and a final showdown between hero and villain. “As much as I enjoyed writing about things that weren’t part of the tradition, I also liked addressing things that were a part of the tradition, and then trying to make them different in some way.”

When he began writing The Sisters Brothers, deWitt asked some friends in the publishing industry if writing a Western was a wise decision: “The general consensus I got was it was tough, that it was maybe not the smartest thing to be doing.” Fortunately for deWitt, the landscape has changed.

“In my first book (2009’s Ablutions) there’s a horse that gets punched in the face. People are asking me what my problem is with horses. I don’t know.”

There’s a scene, three-quarters of the way through the book, where the brothers encounter a prospector who has lost touch with reality; he thinks the dirt he brews is actually coffee. Charlie blames the man’s insanity on solitude. I ask deWitt if writers, often spending years alone working on their books, are threatened by similar afflictions.

“Yeah, I think it’s terribly unhealthy to spend all that time by yourself,” he says, laughing. “Today it’s this beautiful sunny day for the first time basically in eight months, and I’m sitting in my office all day. It just doesn’t make sense.”

My opinion: It was interesting to get inside the book and the author’s mind to see how he created this book.

Sept. 20: I have a question.  Do you guys like it when I send emails/ blog posts about book reviews and writer interviews?  You are either:

“Yeah, I like reading books and I like to know what I should download next into my e-book.  I also like reading author’s interviews.”


“I don’t read books and I don’t care about reading author interviews.”

I would like some feedback on this.  Either way, I will keep sending book reviews and author interviews because I find them interesting.  It’s okay, if you don’t want to read this topic.  It’s not like I’m going to take the bus over to your house and get you on the computer and force you to read it.  I’m sure some of you guys are laughing at the image of me taking the bus to your house and standing over your shoulder as you read the email/ blog post.

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