Recently something happened to me with a novel that hasn't happened in a long time--I started it on Friday night and finished it on Sunday morning (and I've got a baby in the house). I can't remember the last time that happened. That book was Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers.
Admittedly, it's right in my wheelhouse -- a funny, dark, story-driven literary western, one that functions as a classic western, but also a character study that explores sibling bonds and the consequences of violence. It also successfully negotiates that tightrope walk of being dark and funny -- sometimes simultaneously. All the trappings are present; there are gunfights, gundowns, holdups, brothels, Indians, and another element: humour.
Charlie and Eli Sisters are gunmen for hire, sent by the mysterious Commodore to assassinate one Hermann Kermit Warm and liberate the secret of his gold claim. The story unfolds like a road journey, with each brother changing and learning more about the other as the action progresses.
Patrick DeWitt is already getting compared to Cormac McCarthy, which seems a lazy comparison to me. I love the work of McCarthy, but he has virtually no sense of humour (outside of Suttree, McCarthy's joke quota seems to be about one joke per book, at maximum), and DeWitt has humour in spades. If this novel has a spiritual cousin, it's Portis's True Grit (or maybe Franklin's Smonk, which takes the same unflinching gaze at violence, but with a gleeful vulgarity that doesn't seem to interest DeWitt).
Check out the trailer here:
I recently got the chance to ask Patrick about The Sisters Brothers. Here is that interview:
Indigo Fiction Blog: As the sibling bond between Charlie and Eli is so central to this novel, I have to ask -- do you have any brothers?
Patrick DeWitt: I have an older and a younger brother. My relationship with my siblings is a far cry from the Sisters brothers', obviously, but it was the moment I realized Eli and Charlie should be relatives and not just co-workers that the novel came into focus for me.
IFB: What was your inspiration for this novel? Do you have any favourite westerns in literature or on film?
PD: It started as a lark, evolved into a short story, devolved to a humbling migraine, then obstinately, rudely proclaimed itself a novel. I actually haven't read many Western novels, but some of my favorite Western/Western-adjacent films would be: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the spaghetti Westerns, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
IFB: Have any readers given you grief for being so hard on faithful old Tub?
PD: Yes they have, and I sympathize. Those scenes were difficult to write. There was some comparatively mild horse abuse in my first book as well, so the equestrian crowd are out for blood. It's interesting (at least to me) to note that far more readers have expressed displeasure at the treatment of animals in the book than the treatment of human beings, who are butchered randomly throughout.
IFB: What inspired you to call out the events of the 'intermissions' separately?
PD: They both sidestep the story, really, and calling them intermissions was an effective way to point this out to the reader.
IFB: Without going into spoiler territory, Hermann Kermit Warm's gold panning method: it being a method for finding gold that I'd never heard of, I wondered initially if Charlie and Eli were being conned. Was this a hard piece to execute?
PD: It was difficult to make the process seem plausible, definitely, because Warm's method is an impossibility. There are certain parts of the book that are like an ornate house of cards, and once I erected them I backed away slowly...
IFB: What were the most fun, or the hardest, sections to write?
PD: I had the most fun with the section where Hermann Kermit Warm tells his back story to Eli. I wound up cutting 15 or 20 pages of this -- it went on and on. The most difficult section was probably where Charlie tells Eli how Eli got his freckles. It's a straightforward conversation but there was a lot riding on it, and it was hard to get the language to sit properly. And I kept getting choked up, which is something of a momentum killer.
IFB: What are you working on right now?
PD: I'm working on another novel. It's about a crooked investment advisor who expatriates to France rather than go to prison. Half the book will be about his assimilation into a foreign country, with no friends and considerably less money, and the other half will be his looking back at the span of his life, from a childhood in a tenement slum to his rise to the top of the economic food chain in Manhattan.
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