I have often wondered if the United States and Mexico could be considered abroad. When the English went abroad, they crossed the channel and went to a European country; now they are EU siblings. When I went to the United States years ago, we crossed the Niagara River; now the three countries are tied by trade pacts. Accepting that our continental neighbours count as abroad would quadruple the number of Canadian writers I could write about. Really, though, how could I even ask this question? How could I have any doubt? Every Canadian who has been met by a blank stare at their humorous self-deprecation knows that the United States is a foreign country. Besides, since 2009, we need serious ID to cross the border. And as the review below shows, your first stop after crossing the border should be for a bullet-proof vest. Ahaha — my Canadian stereotyping of America.
This review is by Jane Christmas, a previous contributor, with a new book out (see below). She is reviewing The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt , who has lived in California, Washington and now Oregon.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi 2011).
At the Leacock Medal for Humour’s gala dinner in 2012, Patrick deWitt was being feted for his novel The Sisters Brothers. When he was called to accept his award deWitt rose from his seat, ascended the small stage to thunderous applause, and as an anticipatory hush eventually levelled over his audience he leaned into the microphone and said: “Thank you very much.” With that, he calmly walked off the stage and back to his seat as the 200 guests applauded again, this time with utter bewilderment etched on their faces: It was the shortest acceptance speech in the history of the Leacock Medal. At $65 a ticket it was not the best value for money, certainly not by Orillia, Ontario, standards.
It has, nevertheless, been remembered as a very Leacockian moment, though it could just as easily be characterized as a very Sisters Brothers moment, for The Sisters Brothers contains the same sort of awkwardly comedic moments where expectations are utterly dashed. Not surprisingly, the book earned a healthy number of literary trophies when it was released in 2011: in addition to the aforementioned Leacock Medal it also nabbed the Governor-General’s Literary Award, and the Rogers’ Trust Fiction Prize, as well as finalist commendations for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Man Booker Prize.
The Sisters Brothers, set against the California gold rush of the 1850s, follows Eli and Charlie Sisters, a pair of notorious killers, as they travel between Oregon City and the fringes of Sacramento to carry out their latest hit, ordered by their enigmatic boss known as the Commodore. Along the way, the brothers encounter a cesspool of humanity ranging from shady businessmen, skanky whores, and scraggly bearded panhandlers. The horses aren’t very reliable, either. Far from a cliché-ridden frontier novel, it sparkles with deWitt’s dry wit and Tarantino-esque dialogue and tangents. The small everyday human habits and foibles that normally skate past our eyes become precise observations that bestow a smile and even a laugh.
Eli Sisters, who narrates the tale, is the kinder of the two killers, given more to gentle observation and internal sentimentality than he is to being a boastful bon vivant. He gives The Sisters Brothers its unexpected tenderness, and has the reader, in spite of the violence and the gore, rooting for the assassins.
Throughout the journey Eli wrestles with his line of work and dreams of a more sedate and law-abiding life. He proves as gangly as a newborn foal as he tries to cut a more decent figure to those he meets and tries to tame his appetite in order to shed some of his bulk and make himself more appealing to the ladies. The one thing he has mastered is teeth hygiene, and his penchant for this new habit results in a few belly laughs throughout the novel:
After breakfast, I took advantage of his [Charlie’s] good humor, convincing him to try my toothbrush. ‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘Up and down. Now give the tongue a good scrub.’ Breathing in, he felt the mint on his tongue and was impressed with the sensation of it. Handing back the brush and powder he said, ‘There is a very fine feeling.’
‘That’s what I’ve been telling you.’
‘It is a though my entire head has been cleaned.’
‘We might pick you up a brush of your own in San Francisco.’
‘I think we may have to.’
This terrific novel leavens dramatic tension by humour; awkward predicaments and violent episodes are juxtaposed against the stilted, gentlemanly dialogue of our thoughtful narrator. The climax is a mess of hilarity and tragedy, and when the story gallops to a satisfying if bittersweet conclusion a smile remains on the reader’s lips.
And Then There Were Nuns by Jane Christmas was shortlisted for the 2014 Leacock Medal for Humour.
Ron Charles in Washington Post on Sisters Brothers (washingtonpost.com).
Chris Young interviews deWitt in Portland’s About Face (aboutfacemag.com)
Jane Smiley review in Guardian (theguardian.com)