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If you haven’t al­ready read The Sis­ters Broth­ers by Pa­trick dewitt, well, you must. The novel achieved con­sid­er­able recog­ni­tion when it ap­peared in 2011, short­listed for awards such as the Man Booker, Sco­tia­bank Giller, and the Rogers Writ­ers’ Trust. It is due to ar­rive in Sher­brooke any day now in its film ver­sion, fea­tur­ing a quirky cast—john C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyl­len­haal, and Riz Ahmed—un­der the di­rec­tion of Palme d’or win­ner Jac­ques Au­di­ard (5' 8 "!).

The Sis­ters Broth­ers, like Dead­wood and Un­for­given, be­longs to a new type of Western genre—one in which sub­tleties of char­ac­ter vie with the tra­di­tional stereo­typ­i­cal black/white con­flicts (bad guys vs good guys, set­tlers vs in­juns, farm­ers vs cat­tle ranch­ers) and in which moral choice be­comes a crit­i­cal plot ele­ment.

We are taken di­rectly into the story through the dead­pan, whim­si­cal, and at times iras­ci­ble nar­ra­tion of the main char­ac­ter, Eli Sis­ters. The year is 1851, at the height of the Cal­i­for­nia gold rush, and he and brother Char­lie (the other Sis­ters brother) are in the em­ploy of the Com­modore, whose base of op­er­a­tions is Ore­gon City. The Com­modore is at the cen­ter of a vast il­le­gal en­ter­prise, whose op­er­a­tions are as ruth­less as they are wide­spread. Eli and Char­lie are charged with go­ing to San Fran­cisco, then seek­ing out and killing one Her­mann Ker­mit Warm, a prospec­tor who has some­how of­fended the Com­modore.

At this point you have to pull your hat firmly down on your head and hold tight to the reins, be­cause this is go­ing to be a hel­luva yarn—or at least a shaggy dog story. Things get off on the wrong foot at the get-go. Char­lie is ap­pointed “lead man” by the Com­modore, in a depar­ture from the tra­di­tional equal foot­ing shared by the two broth­ers. This ran­kles and leads to some peev­ish ex­changes. The broth­ers have been given two new mounts to re­place the ones “im­mo­lated” on their pre­vi­ous mis­sion, and Eli takes ex­cep­tion to his new horse—even its name, Tub, seems a silent and con­stant re­proach for Eli’s ten­dency to put on ex­tra pounds. In short or­der, Eli is bit­ten by a poi­sonous spi­der, suf­fers ag­o­nies from an ab­scessed tooth; then they en­counter a self-ap­pointed den­tist, an evil witch woman, Tub is at­tacked by a griz­zly, then they meet a group of bel­li­cose prospec­tors, then… well you get the idea.

In all these events Char­lie re­veals as fiercely loyal, but a hot­head, and the one who most of­ten re­sorts to vi­o­lence. Eli is more con­tem­pla­tive, but once his ire is raised, cool and deadly in any con­fronta­tion. The broth­ers work their way to San Fran­cisco, and on the way they meet all man­ner of des­per­ate and shady char­ac­ters.

One critic rightly la­bels the work as a “pi­caresque”, a genre orig­i­nat­ing in 16th cen­tury Spain. The pi­caresque typ­i­cally re­counts the trav­els and ad­ven­tures of a rogue, a ban­dit, a pros­ti­tute, or some other mar­ginal or low-life char­ac­ter. This hero—or anti-hero—en­coun­ters a cross­sec­tion of char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent walks of life, and typ­i­cally satire is the main fo­cus. So, tales as var­ied as Don Quixote, Barry Lyn­don, Tom Jones, Moll Flan­ders—even Huck­le­berry Finn—are pretty much vari­a­tions on this genre. But, while the char­ac­ters in most pi­caresques are static and fixed, Eli shows great depth. He longs for the love of a woman, and finds his and his brother’s ran­dom acts of vi­o­lence in­creas­ingly dis­taste­ful. As the story pro­gresses we dis­cover the trou­bled past of the two broth­ers, and see what made them into vi­o­lent so­ciopaths. So, if there is such a thing as a psy­cho­log­i­cal pi­caresque, this is it.

To add to this com­plex­ity, the broth­ers’ lan­guage is star­tlingly re­fined. Thar ain’t nuthin’ of varmints nor dan­ged, cussed, con­sarned, low-down pole­cats about their elo­cu­tion. Their ex­changes tend to be pithy and cut­ting—el­e­gant in a way—and and what is un­said of­ten drives the ac­tion. In a Guardian in­ter­view with Su­sanna Rus­ton dewitt dis­cusses how he de­lights in re­veal­ing char­ac­ter through di­a­logue: ‘“You can show so much about a per­son from what he shares and ob­scures,” he says. “I come back more and more to the rhythm of con­ver­sa­tion, when two peo­ple are en­gaged and feed­ing off one other; that is re­lent­lessly in­ter­est­ing to me. I come by writ­ing di­a­logue fairly nat­u­rally, I’ve got a chatty fam­ily, I’m a bit of a voyeur, and if I’m ever in a pub­lic place I au­to­mat­i­cally find my­self lis­ten­ing.”’

The novel lacks the com­plex­i­ties of many con­tem­po­rary works, per­haps be­cause dewitt is no prod­uct of cre­ative writ­ing pro­grams. In fact, his suc­cess has a bit of the JK Rowl­ing about it. He was never re­ally clear on a ca­reer path and ended up, af­ter sev­eral mis­steps, serv­ing drinks in a bar three nights a week to make ends meet. In his spare time he worked on his writ­ing and fi­nally plucked up enough nerve to show one of his drafts to a cus­tomer, who hap­pened to know some­one who knew some­one who was a lit­er­ary agent. Voila! Dewitt con­sciously makes plot his chief fo­cus— he wants ev­ery work to be a page turner with a story that will com­pel the reader.

He suc­ceeds won­der­fully. The Sis­ters Broth­ers is avail­able in both text and au­dio­book in the Len­noxville Li­brary.

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