The Sisters Brothers. Patrick DeWitt.

DeWitt, Patrick. The Sisters Brothers. Anansi, Toronto 2011. F; 07/12

It’s hard not to like a story where bad guys are really good: humane and understandable in their evil-doing. Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, and possibly Humbert Humbert, and now Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Nurse Jackie. Whatever else is going on, we get to abandon conventional rules along with the rest of the universe and have morally off-label fun.

And there is a fair bit else going on here. But it comes in a strange arch package. I can’t resist comparing the work to the photograph of himself the author chose for the flyleaf of this edition. Like seriously weird, man. Heavy. Stoned.

The brothers are famous killers in the wild West 1850s, sent by an evil employer to seek out and assassinate an alleged enemy who is actually a successful latter-day alchemist exploiting the gold rush. The narrative is polished: our western movie expectation is met by a certain amount of gratuitous shooting people down for looking at you the wrong way. But it’s appropriately horrifying set against a backdrop of artfully jagged authentic-sounding period detail along with a consistent approximation of 150-year-old American lingo. Smart writing (especially if you want to keep Hollywood up your sleeve in case the Nobel Prize eludes you, this time).

The boys are quite different from one another. Our narrator Eli is the kindly thoughtful younger brother who isn’t comfortable in the murderer’s role, never mind he’s pretty fast with his six-shooter in the style of Hopalong Cassidy and Matt Dillon.

Balancing all this and obviously on the author’s mind is a morally ambiguous spiritual symbolism that he points at us like a loaded gun. It comes in several guises. Early on the boys encounter a witch. There are two “Intermissions”, dreamlike but real in the narrative, where a darling but evil eight-year-old girl poisons a dog, and tries to poison one of the Sisters Charlie. Castration and poison lurk everywhere. The parents both of the brothers and of the alchemist are starkly contrasting monster/protectors, like the dreadful little girl who tells Eli he’s “protected”, but refuses to explain. Who is she? And there’s something especially sinister in the movement of the curtain in the freshly-painted house in front of which she kills the dog, and its resemblance to the boys’ mother’s home.

I can’t decide how completely this moral ambiguity (which make no mistake the book is about) stays balanced enough to escape finally feeling like an awkward but successful attempt to scare kids on Halloween (Patrick DeWitt’s photograph is almost enough to accomplish that). I find the superficially happy-unhappy ending doesn’t quite overcome the scary story, and somehow I wanted the humane side of the moral dichotomy to reach a little deeper, but probably that’s just me.

Plenty to chew on, but I’m not sure how much I want to swallow. 8.7

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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