This week, The Globe and Mail is running a series of excerpts from the five books shortlisted for the 2011 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Today's offering is from Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers , a darkly comic western novel set during the California gold rush of the 1850s. It is the second novel by deWitt, a native of Vancouver Island who now lives in Portland, Ore. The Sisters Brothers is also a finalist for this year's Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor-General's Award for fiction, and was on the short list for last week's Man Booker Prize.
Patrick deWitt's fellow Writers' Trust Prize nominees are Clark Blaise (whose excerpt appeared on Thursday) Michael Christie (whose excerpt appeared on Wednesday), Dan Vyleta (whose excerpt appeared on Tuesday) and Esi Edugyan (whose excerpt appeared on Monday). The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced on Nov. 1 in Toronto.
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I was sitting outside the Commodore's mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie's new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with the names intact, so that was that. Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by. 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? Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.
I felt a weight of eyes on me and looked away from Nimble. Charlie was gazing down from the upper-story window, holding up five fingers. I did not respond and he distorted his face to make me smile; when I did not smile his expression fell slack and he moved backward, out of view. He had seen me watching his horse, I knew. The morning before I had suggested we sell Tub and go halves on a new horse and he had agreed this was fair but then later, over lunch, he had said we should put it off until the new job was completed, which did not make sense because the problem with Tub was that he would impede the job, so would it not be best to replace him prior to? Charlie had a slick of food grease in his mustache and he said, 'After the job is best, Eli.' He had no complaints with Nimble, who was as good or better than his previous horse, unnamed, but then he had had first pick of the two while I lay in bed recovering from a leg wound received on the job. I did not like Tub but my brother was satisfied with Nimble. This was the trouble with the horses.
The Sisters Brothers excerpt © 2011 by Patrick deWitt. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi ( www.anansi.ca ).
Patrick deWitt appears at Toronto's International Festival of Authors, Oct. 26, 27 and 29; in Hamilton Oct. 27 and 30; and in Parry Sound, Ont., Nov. 2 (www.readings.org).