Super-dooper western noir

A review of Patrick DeWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers”

If you believe the the litany of the pessimists, the American West, ancestral home of mournful country music still seems to have plenty to sing about: depopulating rural areas, the loss of young people to the coasts and the cities, ongoing rural poverty, conflicts over dwindling water, a squeeze on the economics of the farmers and ranchers who found the western myth in favour of massive, impersonal agricultural enterprise.

But to me the west has never been happy stories. Grit, dirt, heat, the cheapness of life, the search for honour and easy money, heavy drinking, pointless tragedy, and the weakness of humans in the face of an enormous and implacable nature. These are the western themes I am familiar with. Happy westerns, such as they are, feature morally questionable characters who do the right thing, redeem themselves, and ride off into the sunset. Tragic westerns feature morally questionable characters who do not do the right thing, or can’t overcome their moral questionableness, and do not get to ride off anywhere.

This marvelous tale toys about on the boundaries of the choice between tragedy and a happy ending. It particularly reminded me of Clint Eastwood – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Unforgiven, Gran Torino (tragic though it is to describe any art by comparison with other). A fairy story in the best possible sense of the word, this book recounts the doings of the famed assassins Eli and Charlie Sisters in their persistent but somewhat circuitous pursuit of their next mark.

The story is narrated by one of the brothers – thank heavens Mr DeWitt chose the more appealing one – a sympathetic, observant soul, growing in power and confidence, searching for love, and coming to realise that he doesn’t really want to be a hired killer after all.

The usual western devices are re-imagined and finely painted: prostitutes, dastardly robber barons, sickly beauties, deranged prospectors mad after money, horses, dirt, brandy, untidy towns, gunfights, shadowy powers, camping out under the stars. Plus there is a little magical realism and mystery to keep you interested, a bit of medical intervention to make you squirm, and even the occasional Indian.

At another level the story is an exposition of the character flaws that mean that things can never end perfectly for the brothers – in all satisfying stories, bad guys have to lose, after all, even if their world is peopled with an entire cast of the morally dubious, some of them possibly worse than the raffish assassins themselves.

In conversation the Sisters Brothers are brilliantly literary, logical, calm, and often ironically hilarious, bringing to mind the apparently friendly pair of killers in Pulp Fiction. You laugh, and you come to appreciate, feel sympathy for, and even actually like at least one of the brothers. But the humour is stifled and mixed with slight embarrassment: some poor victim is about to meet a violent death, accompanied by your giggles. It is just as well it is fiction.