Title: The Sisters Brothers
Rating: 4 Stars
This is a story about two brothers whose last name is Sisters. They are renowned, at least on the West Coast during the Gold Rush days, for being notorious gun men. They are in the employ of a wealthy magnate named the Commodore (thank you, Mr. Vanderbilt), who hires them to kill people that he wishes dead, for whatever reason they cannot guess.
Apparently, their last hit was rough. Now Eli, the younger brother, is beginning to question his career choice. The older brother, Charlie, is ruthless and suffers no such qualms.
The story is mostly them journeying from Oregon to the Bay area, having conversations and a myriad set of adventures as they go. The story is told in the first person by Eli, whose thoughts and conversations are interesting and are expressed creatively. I have no idea how people talked during those times, but I’m guessing essentially uneducated hit men would not have talked that way, but I don’t care because I found it amusing and entertaining. I got much the same feeling from listening to the beautiful but anachronistic dialog of Deadwood.
Eli clearly just wants to go home with his money and live a quiet life. He is not a man given to strike out on his own and so usually just passively follows his brother Charlie. Charlie has no such ambitions; he wants to stay in the game and eventually supplant the Commodore.
The person that they are supposed to kill proves to be compelling and arouses their sympathy and respect, which does not bode well for killing him.
I won’t spoil the plot, but clearly this hit does not go the way of the others and it has a dramatic effect upon both brothers.
To me, the ending just does not flow with the rest of the book. This is very often a problem with fiction. The author falls in love with the characters and does a great job of filling them out. At the end, when the characters have to transition to a new state (which is usually the point of the novel), the transition is handled in a clumsy manner and the ending seems artificial or tacked on. This was the feeling that I left with.
The most famous example of this is Huckleberry Finn. This is (except for the obvious nineteenth century racism) a beautiful book. Huck is a semi-literate white trash child of a violent alcoholic. He runs away from his father and sets off down the river in a raft. He eventually runs into the escaped slave Jim. At first he exhibits the racism and ignorance that you would expect. Over time, in conversations with Jim, you can see Huck evolve into a richer humanity. It is a wonderful story of ignorant youth blossoming to an unexpectedly higher plane.
And then, about 30 pages from the end, Tom Sawyer shows up. He promptly turns Jim’s escape from slave owners into some elaborate silly game that both Huck and Jim play along with. From Huck’s growing humanity to this farcical treatment of a man’s life and freedom is a jarring transition and mars what is one of the nineteenth century’s great novels.
Contrast that ending with Frank Norris’ McTeague (upon which Erich von Stroheim’s lost movie, Greed, was based upon). I personally found McTeague to be a prosaic affair. A man and a woman fall in love and eventually, starting with winning a small lottery, if I recollect correctly (and I might be recalling it incorrectly and I’m too tired to check wiki right now), they become obsessed with money and eventually destroy each other trying to accumulate as much as possible at the expense of the other.
Again, I won’t spoil it, but the very last image on the very last page of this novel encapsulates, in that one image, the themes and pathos of the work. It was if all of the preceding pages were leading inevitably to that one final scene. I closed the last page of the book feeling as if Norris had completed his vision. That feeling, at least for me, happens rarely.