Wednesday, October 30, 2019

84. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

I found this on the street in a bag filled with mainstream mysteries and literary fiction, all in good condition amongst other household items, often found on Montreal streets during moving weekends.  I took it because it caused a lot of excitement here in Canada and because I had heard an interview with John C. Reilly who was so humbly and charmingly pleased with the movie he produced based on the book.  My wife had read it a few years ago and said it was pretty good.  As it turned out, she still had her copy, so I needn't have even stretched out my on deck shelf.  Though knowing my capricious motivations around which book to read, I may never have gotten to it had I not stumbled upon it in a ripped open black garbage bag.

Before I get into all the annoying things around this book, I will say straight off that it is a really good book, a great story with funny, likable characters that makes you want to turn the pages.  The author worked hard at it, did a good job and deserves all the money and respect he got from its success.  What bugs me is why does this book get elevated to some elite status, while there have been so many great westerns that are not dressed up with cool graphic design and marketed to an educated readership that are just lost in time?  I think I answered my own question.  I am just always suspicious when a "literary" author writes what is basically a genre book and it gets treated with so much respect and publicity while great, great writers languished away, their books not getting the respect simply because they are seen as lower-class.  It's very much like Tarantino, who "elevates" movie genres he claims he loves by filling them with faux-intelligent dialogue, high production values and great actors and he is thus an "auteur" (to be fair, I enjoyed deWitt's treatment of the western far more than any of Tarantino's work). 

This is especially true in Canada, with its precious, desperate, incestuous and back-biting canlit world.  DeWitt doesn't even live in Canada and likely hasn't for years (though coming from Sydney on the island and being only 6 years younger than me, I wonder if I may have ever run into him back in the day) and gets adopted as a Canadian writer by the media here.  What is Canadian about this book?  It takes place entirely in the United States and the underlying themes and tropes are mostly American (the expansion of the west, man exploiting and destroying nature, killing people).  I guess you could argue that the softer nature of the narrator (the nicer one of the two brothers) and his desire to just live a slower life and do something mundane is pretty Canadian.

Anyhow, to the story itself!  It's about two brothers who are hired killers, working for a powerful employer known as The Commodore.  They are sent to San Francisco to hunt down a man, Hermann Warm, who supposedly stole money from the Commodore.  The first half of the book we slowly get to know the two brothers as they encounter various adventures between Oregon City and San Francisco.  We learn that the older one is much more aggressive and meaner and the younger one is deep down a sensitive sould.  In the second half of the book, they get to San Francisco and learn about Warm and what he was up to which tests their alliance and motivations.

It is written in a Runyon-esque style, with the first-person narration by the younger more sensitive brother speaking in a rich and educated vocabulary that is entertaining to read, though makes the whole thing feel somewhat unrealistic.  I guess this is what makes it literary fiction and not just a genre book.  It's a lot of fun learning about the brothers' characters as well as them employing their wits and badassedness to deal with situations.  The second half gets really interesting and crazy.  A very enjoyable read all in all.

1 comment:

Ron Smyth said...

I read this and I enjoyed it well enough, but it was nothing special as far as I'm concerned.