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The Sisters Brothers book review

Written By Franklin V on Friday, November 18, 2011 | 7:50 PM

Book:The Sisters Brothers
Author:Patrick de Witt 
Pages; Price:330 pages; Rs 499

Just when you thought that the Wild West had been buried and lost forever under the weight of its own success, or wiped a tear, that doggone it, John and Steve and Clint had hung up their boots forever, here comes The Sisters Brothers

They come a-riding and a-cussing and a-killing as you'd never believe was possible;Butch Cassidy and Sundance gone to seed. They should have been called the ornery brothers. It's not possible you tell yourself that anyone could possibly care for, let alone like, such a pair of stinkers. They display every wretched vice in the book, from drunkenness to gluttony and what they lack is made up by the characters they meet on the long road from Oregon City to Sacramento, where the gold rush is in full operation. For all that their author Patrick de Witt has ridden his boys so hard he managed to pin his hat on the shortlist of the Booker Prize. Is it a tour de force or a force of nature that he's managed to pull off? 

It reminds us of an old argument about the polarized nature of the American literary imagination that was pointed out by critic Philip Rahv as far back as 1939. American sensibility was divided by what he called the "redskins versus paleskins" dilemma. The redskins were, according to him, "vulgar, anti-intellectual, combining aggression with conformity and reverting to the crudest forms of frontier psychology". The other side, was "genteel, snobbish and pedantic" in the Henry James tradition. One might also argue that the paleskins carried with them the airs and flavours of their European roots; the redskins were the crude, rude native Americans willing to ride into the desert of unknown possibilities chewing tobacco and mouthing obscenities. 

The interesting thing about de Witt is that he writes like a paleskin but dissects the inner lives of his redskins with a precision and humour that is riveting. Charlie is the older and more violent brother. He shoots, drinks and whores his way to an assignation to kill a suspect who is out prospecting for gold, at the behest of a mysterious Commodore back in Oregon City while Eli, the younger brother, gives us his own view of life. It's more Don Quixote and Sancho out to prove themselves on their horses named Nimble and Tub here than the Lone Ranger and Tonto. 

There's a grisly scene where Eli has to watch a stable hand scoop Tub's eye out with a spoon and sever the ligament that holds it down, while Tub lies heavily sedated. It's difficult to describe this as amusing, but even Eli is as horrified and repelled by the scene as we are to make it all seem authentic. Oddly, one is reminded of stories of the Taliban leader Omar Abdullah scooping his damaged eyeball himself and wiping it on the wall behind him. Nothing shocks today's reader anymore. 

If de Witt only dealt in horror it might have been difficult to stick with The Sisters Brothers. The hunt for gold proves to be the moment of epiphany that is so completely wondrous and magical that it lifts the grim tale into the realm of a fable, both ageless and cyclical. So, even as the campfire that the brothers build in the wilderness reeks of death and the gaseous emanations of exploding skulls, there's redemption in the gold-filled rivers of the Wild West.
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