Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Sisters Brothers (2011)

It's possible that Patrick deWitt, born on Vancouver Island and presently living in Portland, Oregon, was unaware of Deadwood or the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit while he was writing this novel. But I think it's more likely they acted as some sort of inspiration as deWitt concocted this handsomely wrought revisionist Western, which manages to have its cake and eat it too, from beginning to end. It is perfectly satisfying as a Western—caveats must be registered here as I am not necessarily the best judge of Westerns—and yet as playful and ironic as any other piece of Portland culture. I see the greatest influence of the latter-day Westerns in the language, which is splendidly lucid even as it retains the slightly ornate tang of 19th-century usage (which was at least the greatest thing the True Grit remake had to offer). DeWitt is very sly about what he manages here. By applying a veneer of 21st-century sensitivity to the tropes of Westerns, deWitt is skillful in lampooning various odd angles in to the form, such as relations between men and beasts, or between brothers, and thus it is often very funny and lighthearted. He's even more skillful in applying notes of poignancy in these very same areas, and only gradually does one come to understand the serious ambition here. Even as it contributes to the ongoing (and slow) revitalization of the Western genre, it also flies daringly and straight into profound existential questions, of life and death, of men and beasts and brothers. Love, loyalty, dehumanization, and even an odd element of science fiction are all managed adroitly. The narrator, gunman Eli Sisters, is a wonderful creation, with a near perfectly modulated voice. Unschooled but wise, venal and cowardly and weak, but across the space of the novel he is redeemed by his own constantly questioning manner. He remains deluded yet clear-sighted, and managing that knife's-edge balance—and developing it—is perhaps the greatest pleasure of this very impressive novel. I loved it.

In case it's not at the library.

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