Thursday, June 28, 2012
Book review: The Sisters Brothers
"If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick DeWitt's bloody, darkly funny western," is how the Los Angeles Times described Patrick DeWitt's novel, The Sisters Brothers.
Well, invoke the name of one of my favorite authors, and you've got my attention. A peek inside the cover reveals an impressive number of laudatory remarks from other sources as well: Esquire magazine, the Boston Globe, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and numerous best-selling authors (none of whom had I read). The book jacket proudly announces that the novel was "shortlisted" for the Man Booker Prize.
All chaff in the wind, I'm afraid. In spite of all the praise --in spite, even, of the brilliant two-page opening chapter wherein DeWitt sets the stage for the tale that is to come --The Sisters Brothers just doesn't deliver.
DeWitt's novel is the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, two guns-for-hire in Oregon City in 1851. The brothers are renowned throughout the territory as expert killers in the employ of a shadowy figure known simply as "The Commodore." They're given the task to hunt down and kill a gold prospector named Kermit Warm who was last known to be in faraway San Fransisco. The novel, then, recounts the brothers' strange odyssey through territorial Oregon and northern California in search of their target.
The novel is full of potential. The encounters the brothers have on their journey are diverse and bizarre. There is an encounter with a wood-witch, a grizzly bear (and, yes, there were grizzly bears in Oregon in the 1850s), and an hilarious encounter with a frontier dentist.
So why does the book fail?
Well, first and foremost, there is no overarching theme that conjoins the various colorful encounters the brothers have on their journey. There is nothing to tie it all together; to lend meaning to the events that transpire. In particular, the encounter with the witch is presented as significant and readers naturally expect that the consequences of that encounter will manifest themselves later in the narrative. But when the novel is concluded, we've all but forgotten the crazy woman in the woods with her foreboding and charms and spells. When viewed in retrospect, none of the encounters are significant; they're utterly random and meaningless, like the ghasts and ghouls in a carnival fun house.
Another problem was the dialog. All the characters speak in a formal, solemn diction that, at first, is charming, but which quickly becomes burdensome and unlikely.
But the most disappointing aspect of the book is that it shies away from any real drama. DeWitt leads his readers up to the point of expectation, only to then let them down in a most unspectacular manner. The prime example is the mass murder that occurs early in the book. Readers are informed of the killings after the fact, in a casual manner. The event is given neither import nor significance. DeWitt passes up a prime opportunity for emotional investment.
It's too bad. This book had so much potential.