It will no longer be a secret after I type this . . . I like Westerns. It might be because I lived on a farm for eight years growing up, or that my Dad always watches Western movies at home. It might be that I am interested in the rebellion from social norms that takes place in Westerns, or that in Westerns we see a glimpse of human nature at its rawest.
Westerns usually employ some kind of Lord of the Flies-esque model: a world where the intelligent schemers and the strong and quick survive. Yet, this concept is not unique to the Wild West. Just look at the TV series The Wire and the same concepts are evident in West Baltimore. There is something about carving out a system within a community, complete with unspoken rules and laws, that intrigues us as humans. Why? I think people are interested in these stories because it gives a glimpse into what it means to be human.
As humans, we like to see the good in others. We believe in what we call “faith in humanity.” Whenever we are betrayed by strangers, or our expectations are let down by strangers, we often say we have lost our faith in humanity. Well, what is it that we are looking for in our encounters with other humans? Why do we expect the best and hope for the best? Why are we so willing to trust others we have never met?
In The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt explores this idea of trust and how the rogue and dangerous gun-slinging cowboys of Westerns manipulate others’ expectations of goodness through his Sisters brothers duo. And he does it with tongue-in-cheek.
Eli and Charlie Sisters, men for hire, are a brother team notorious in the world that deWitt creates. Wherever they go, people recognize their names and look upon the brothers with fear. In the book, and unbeknownst to the characters they encounter, these brothers prey on the trust of others in order to get out of dicey situations. They don’t have a name for the trick, but by calling out their victim to a draw, they count to three. Of course, they shoot on one and win the draw, thus exploiting the willingness of others to trust their word to actually count all the way to three.
Yet these cowboys are not all bad (Charlie excluded). Poor Eli struggles with his role as a murderer for hire and tries along the way to give back to those who are in need. Eli often gives his money away to women, he helps a 15-year-old starving and abandoned boy, he keeps his slow and sickly horse out of compassion, and he loves his mother. He even takes time every morning and evening to brush his teeth with mint powder. Eli trusts Charlie to lead them in their work and even has his trust betrayed by Charlie.
By having such a dichotomy between good and bad, kind and evil, compassionate and harsh, deWitt is able to play with the concept of trust when the brothers are encountered as a team. Also, it provides a dark shade of humour for the reader.
In a world where the rules are that there are no rules and humans expect humans to respect each other, guns for hire seem to come out looking all right in the end. That is if they can keep up the trick of getting people to buy into their game of trust.
My Grandma’s copy of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage was the first Western I ever read. Although I haven’t read a Western since, I did enjoy Grey’s heroic tale. Now, having read deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, I can see why this Canadian’s book became so popular. I think that in this instance it took a Canadian sense of humour to bring some laughs into a seemingly dark world. What an enjoyable read! I might just pick up another Western to enjoy the joke a little more.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7)