Much has been made, over the last few decades, about the death of the western as a genre. All this talk, however, seems to overlook a single, crucial point: the western was never just a genre. In fact, the western was an American mythology, a re-creation myth out of the ashes of the Civil War, rooted in the potential and peril of the westward expansion, peopled with heroes and gods. Stories like the gunfight at the OK Corral and the murder of Jesse James took on the value of scripture, and were presented and represented in pulpy periodicals, books, plays, variety/Wild West shows and, most effectively, films.
Contrary to popular belief, the heroes and anti-heroes of westerns were not simplistically drawn or overly romanticized; in fact the moral complexity of someone like Billy the Kid, and of his popular reception, are practically unrivalled, and served as a paradigm for a growing national and personal self-reliance and independence. The western, at its peak, wasn't merely entertainment: it was the construction of a cultural identity.
The recent re-examination and deconstruction of the form illustrates not just a questioning of or a playing within a genre, but a loss of that guiding, mythological impetus.
While it might be too much to ask a single novel to recover an entire mythos, The Sisters Brothers, from Vancouver Island- born, Portland, Oregon-based writer Patrick DeWitt at least serves as a poignant, powerful reminder of what has been lost. It's a powerful, compelling novel.
The Sisters Brothers follows the titular siblings – Eli and Charlie – as they wend their way toward San Francisco through the boomtowns and detritus of the gold rush. They've been commissioned by the mysterious Commodore to kill Hermann Warm, a prospector who has wronged him in some undetermined way. They've killed for less.
The Sisters brothers are infamous outlaws whose names strike horror in those who hear it. Charlie is the "first man", the older brother, always in charge though, given his taste for brandy and prostitutes, and his quickness to shoot, he's not always in control. Eli, who narrates the novel, is struggling to make sense of his life and his role as a killer. It's not something he's ever balked at, and his loyalty to his brother knows no bounds. But his moral struggle is at the heart of the novel, even as his temper and his methodical nature make it clear that he may be the more dangerous of the two men, all appearances to the contrary.
Their journey toward San Francisco is a succession of bizarre adventures, narrow escapes, and mounting bloodshed (I would use "picaresque" to describe the odyssey, but someone already used it in a blurb). Eli finds meaning and connection even in the most fleeting of encounters, whether with a hotel woman, a frail bookkeeper or a mysterious woman in a cabin on a night he is close to death. Their journey after San Francisco, as they pursue Warm to his claim after discovering the truth about why the Commodore wants him dead, is a fantastic, fatalistic journey into the heart of their own natures, and the consequences of their past.
DeWitt not only plays the western straight, he draws from the best. Written with the parsed force of the best of Elmore Leonard, DeWitt's closest CanLit antecedent seems to be Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. The influence comes through not only in his attention to every word, every detail, but also in the deadpan, unflinching depiction of violence, reality elevated almost to the level of ridiculousness. DeWitt's description of the murder of four trappers – "It was an immaculate bit of killing, the slickest and most efficient I could recall, and no sooner had they fallen than Charlie began laughing, as did I, though more out of relief than anything, whereas Charlie I believe was genuinely tickled. It isn't enough to be lucky, I thought." – has the same resonance as Ondaatje's "After shooting Gregory": "I'd shot him well and careful/made it explode under his heart/ so it wouldn't last long".
Despite being deliberately and effectively part of a tradition (one can imagine it being written and read a hundred years ago, with a few caveats), The Sisters Brothers is a bold, original and powerfully compelling work, grounded in well-drawn characters and a firm hold on narrative. When they say "They don't write em like that anymore," they're wrong.
Robert J. Wiersema messes with genre in Victoria, BC. His next book, Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen, will be published in September.