annotation by Lee Stoops
“My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence…”
~ Eli Sisters, from The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (246)
Recently, I admitted to myself that I like gritty western stories. It was a secret I kept even from myself. Why I avoided, and told myself and others that I didn’t enjoy, western stories I’ll never know. Principal? Stigma? It doesn’t matter; what matters is that I finally came about. Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is a gritty western story, to be sure. For that, I enjoyed it. But it is not just a gritty western story; it’s a study in character development, unique voice, and literary craft, a combination place to which few gritty western stories arrive (a nod to Cormac McCarthy for long ago transcending the genre). deWitt’s a gifted storyteller and a deserving new voice in contemporary literature. Evidenced by the sincerity of his first person narrator, Eli Sisters, deWitt, as author, understands that he is under contract with readers of this genre – a contract to entertain, yes, but more so to move, to create sympathy, to enable emotion and draw on senses. His product is fun, engaging, heart-rending, and instructive. It’s a great read for all of these reasons. Since it would be easy to evaluate the book in regards to deWitt’s craft, I’ll turn this annotation exclusively to his use of a transgressive first person narrator.
Eli Sisters, the narrator, kills other people for a living. The story, taking place in the 1850s, follows Eli and his brother, Charlie, from Oregon City to a gold claim near Sacramento as they hunt Hermann Warm on orders from the influential and mysterious Commodore. That Eli is a hired killer and that the story picks up at the beginning of the Warm hit is established almost immediately, but not before the reader gets a picture of Eli watching (and mourning) his nameless horse burn in a barn fire at the end of the previous job. deWitt gives the reader the image in a way both clever and effective: through Eli’s unique voice – using both his (Eli’s) language and his (again, Eli’s) way of seeing the world. The fact that deWitt begins with this description of Eli being tortured by the image of his great companion suffering is important when considering deWitt’s decision to use this character and voice to tell the entire story. The move establishes for the reader a strange connection with a character worthy of loathing. And, because the connection is fused in the loss of something innocent and lovable, the reader can’t leave Eli’s camp. It’s a sharing of sympathy, sure, but it’s also a sharing of understanding – that Eli is troubled and needs to be cared for. Smart work.
I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot popping eyeballs. He could cover sixty miles in a day like a gust of wind and I never laid a hand on him except to stroke him or clean him, and I tried not to think of him burning up in that barn but if the vision arrived uninvited how was I to guard against it (5-6)?
Eli is, as established early, a transgressive character. Meaning, he operates outside accepted social norms (making a living in crime) while remaining the protagonist. The reader develops a quick understanding about him and can identify some rationale as to why it’s okay that Eli does what he does. The style’s not new, but it’s challenging, and deWitt commits to it, proving to the savvy reader that he (deWitt) didn’t stumble into the storyline ill-prepared. The temptation in writing a transgressive character is to eventually prove the character good, usually by re-directing course or offering some kind of salvation or redemption for the character’s transgressions. deWitt doesn’t cop to that temptation, and if he ever felt tempted, it’s not evident. Throughout the story, Eli dreams about leaving the work and the lifestyle behind, fantasizes about finding love and settling down. He even comes to a point that he blames his brother and claims he’s been manipulated into killing because of his temper and size. And throughout, the reader sneaks further and further into the fold, getting pieces of Eli’s history and seeing that, while he might have a case, his ruminations give the truth of him away: he is not a good guy – he is a bad guy who wants to be good but lacks the real conviction to pull it off. He is human. For deWitt to pull it off, he had to commit fully to keeping Eli in the realm of transgression and then work hard to keep him there, through to the end, without giving Eli any real salvation or change. It takes remarkable skill, and the reader is rewarded with an authentic character experience.
‘We are the opposite of lawmen.’
Her face became pensive. ‘Is this Warm a very bad man?’
‘I don’t know. That is an unclear question. They say he is a thief.’
‘What did he steal?’
‘Whatever people normally steal. Money, probably.’ This lying made me feel ugly, and I search around for something to look at and find distraction in but could not locate anything suitable. ‘Honestly, actually, he probably didn’t steal a penny.’ Her eyes dropped and I laughed a little. I said, ‘It would not surprise me in the least if he was perfectly innocent.’
‘And do you typically go after men you think are innocent?’
‘There is nothing typical about my profession.’ Suddenly I did not want to talk about it any longer. ‘I don’t want to talk about it any longer.’
Ignoring this statement, she asked, ‘Do you enjoy your work?’
‘Each job is different. Some I have seen as singular escapades. Others have been like hell.’ I shrugged. ‘You put a wage behind something, it gives the act a sort of respectability. In a way, I suppose it feels significant to have something as large as a man’s life entrusted to me.’
‘A man’s death,’ she corrected.
I had not been certain she understood what my position consisted of. I was relieved to know she did – that I did not have to tell her precisely. ‘However you wish to phrase it,’ I said.
‘Haven’t you ever wanted to stop?’
‘I have wanted to,’ I admitted (138-139).
It is perhaps in deWitt’s development of Eli’s interior monologue that he sees the most success from his decision to give the story to a transgressive character. Not because the character manages to understand himself (he doesn’t), but because he manages to convince himself he understands himself. The reader knows better, and there follows a sense of compassion, something more powerful than pity but not to the level of love. And, by the end, the reader may or may not understand that deWitt has peppered Eli’s internal missives with lines that get the reader asking for, or at least considering, the truths in his or her own life. This kind of writing is not exclusive in the employment of transgressive characters, but it works well because the reader is coming at the questions from angles he or she might not routinely explore.
…and as we left the musty basement, heading up the stairs and into the light, I felt two things at once: A gladness at this turn of fortune, but also an emptiness that I did not feel more glad; or rather, a fear that my gladness was forced or false. I thought, Perhaps a man is never meant to be truly happy. Perhaps there is no such a thing in our world, after all (162).
My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal? I began exhaling hotly through my nostrils, where as Charlie was quiet and calm, and he made a gesture that I should also be quiet. He was used to corralling me like this, winding me up and corralling me into battle. Shame, I thought. Shame and blood and degradation (246).
Looking back at the camp I thought, I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one, and neither do I want to be led. I thought: I want to lead only myself (302).
Not all gritty western stories are great stories, and not all are well-written. But again, though deWitt’s got a gritty western story in The Sisters Brothers, he’s also got a lot more. Thanks to his commitment to a strong, transgressive narrator and his careful crafting of human trial, deWitt’s story is literature as literature should be: engaging, emotive, and encouraging of deep questions and suspicious truths. Writers need examples such as this. What better way to provide one than by helping to erode the stereotypes that oppress an entire genre?