Sibling strains

Sibling strains

Jefferson Chase reviews another whisky tome
Jefferson Chase

20 July 2012

Publication: Issue 105

One of the things I kept thinking while reading Patrick deWitt’s terrific 2011 novel The Sisters Brothers was “Jeez, this would make a great Coen Brothers film.” As it turns out, actor John C. Reilly has optioned the rights, and he’s got a winner on his hands.

The book is a Western set in the Pacific Northwest sometime in the late 19th century and revolves around two siblings for hire, Eli and Charlie Sisters. The boys are partners, and as the story opens, they retire to a saloon to discuss a job that will put their relationship under no small strain:

We sat at a table in the back of the King and were brought our usual bottle and a pair of glasses. Charlie poured me a drink, when we normally pour our own, so I was prepared for bad news when he said it: “I’m going to be the lead man on this one.”

The job in question, commissioned by an evil magnate known only as the Commodore, is to kill a man named Hermann Warm.
This is a very violent and very funny story, with much of the humour coming from the purposely stilted dialogues between the younger, slightly less intelligent and slightly more moral Eli Sisters, who’s the narrator, and his brother.

"Like the great cinematic Westerns, the justice done in the end is ambiguous"

At one point, he and Charlie debate the ethics of extinguishing a human life for money, only to turn the conservation in a different direction:

“Morals come later. I asked if it would make sense.”

“It would at least make sense, yes.”

“Fine. Now, let us discuss the consequences of disobeying the Commodore.”

“It would be unpleasant. I should think we would be hunted all our lives.”

“Unless?” he said, lips upturned. “Unless?”

“Yes,” I said. “We would have to kill him.”

The two brothers never do decide what to do about the contract out on Warm until they finally catch up with him.

At that point, the Sisters find out that Warm has discovered a way of illuminating gold and thus making it easier to pan – and that he’s someone they can do business with. The deal is sealed the old fashioned Western way:

I had a drink of whiskey and handed the bottle to Charlie. He took a drink and passed it to Warm. Warm took a short sip and screwed the top on tight, hiding the flask as if to say: That’s enough of that. He licked his palm to smooth his hair and tugged on his lapels to straighten them.

In the end, Warm’s innovation turns out to be, shall we say, somewhat hazardous to human health, giving The Sisters Brothers a final turn. But like the great cinematic Westerns, the justice done in the end is ambiguous, and it’s hard to say exactly what the moral is or whether the good guys have really won. So come on, Mr. Reilly, let’s get this one up on the silver screen.

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