It’s disturbing that a book so bleak and depressing should be so hilarious that I literally couldn’t contain my laughter. I mean, since when did stories of cold-blooded murder fall into the realm of comedy? And try telling the people around you, annoyed by your constant snorting, that the book that that’s got you in stitches is a 19th century Western narrated by a psychopathic hit-man with a violent temper, who also just happens to have this really sweet vulnerable side; you know, once you get to know him.
But that’s what makes Patrick deWitt’s book so fantastic – no two pieces (i.e. the morally repugnant side and the thigh-slapping idiocy side) fit together. Yet as a whole it somehow works. The New York Times Review sums it up perfectly:
“The Sisters Brothers” is surely gritty, as well as deadpan and often very comic. Eli Sisters tells the story in a loftily formal fashion, doggedly literal, vulgar and polite at turns, squeezing humor out of stating the obvious with flowery melodrama.”
Here’s an example:
“Where is your mother”, Charlie asked.
“I’m sorry to hear that”
“Thank you. But she was always dead”.
The ridiculousness of the vignettes and plot twists are made ever-more ridiculous by the inscrutable manner in which Eli conveys them. I suppose it is this deftness which makes it somewhateasier to digest scenes like the one where Eli is provoked into a state of frenzied violence:
“My leg was stinging terribly and I was possessed with a rage. The man’s brain was painted in purple blood, bubbling foam emerging from its folds; I raised up my boot and dropped my heel into the hole with all my weight behind it, caving in what was left of the skull and flattening it in general so that it was no longer recognisable as the head of a man”.
Wowsers. That wiped the smile off my face. It’s almost inconceivable that I’d manage to feel anything but repulsion for a man like Eli Sisters, much less find myself rooting for him that he’d lose weight and get the girl; feeling sorry for him because his brother still treats him like a stupid little kid; hoping that his mother would take him back with open arms. But that is indeed what happened. I don’t as a rule feel this way about all murderers and psychopaths, apparently just the ones that are thick-set, sensitive, and adept at telling a funny story with a straight face.
There areparts that are really deep, or at least feign depth. Warm, for example, provides a Cormac McCarthy-esque meditation on the emptiness of life near to the end when the romp is almost over:
“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood – weak blood, diluted – and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing”.
I couldn’t pay too much attention to these forays into philosophy, not because I didn’t agree with them – the quote above is stellar. But what I have personally taken away from “The Sisters Brothers” is not a profound reflection on the greater purpose of life, or a historically accurate depiction of the gold-rush era, or a moral debate about whether cold-blooded murderers have feelings too – so much as a gentle reminder that sometimes reading should be rollicking good fun just for the sake of it; whether it’s appropriate or not.