By Patrick deWitt
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living – and whom he does it for.
Having seen so many positive reviews for this book, and seen that it has been nominated for many awards, including the Man Booker Prize 2011, I decided it was time to read it for myself and see what all the fuss was about.
Patrick deWitt writes in a very readable style, creating many fascinating characters in the process that kept me turning the pages. The story is told in the first person, through Eli Sisters. There really isn’t much of a plot, but it’s the character studies that held my attention, made we want to keep reading to find out what would happen to them.
At least half of the book is taken up with the Sisters’ brothers journey from Oregon City to Sacramento, and it’s during these travels that the brothers meet many of the other characters. Witnessing how the brothers react to these people, none of whom really have anything to do with the main plot line, is what I found the most interesting aspect of this book. In fact some of the people you’d expect to read about again, such as the weeping man (who appears twice), never have their stories fully explained, or just vanish without a trace, as does the witches curse that is pushed to the forefront of the tale for a while and then just seems to become forgotten by the end.
There are a couple of other things that raised my eyebrow, such as the number of people of the trail between Oregon and California in the 1850s, seems the brothers couldn’t go more than a few paces without meeting someone new. Then there’s the killing of a grizzly with four pistol shots – not sure that would have been possible with the weapons of the day, but deWitt is careful to never name the pistols used. Towards the end one of the Sisters brothers does something that is pivotal to the outcome of the book that seems so out of character it kind of spoiled it for me. I’d have also liked to have discovered more about the formula – if it was real surely other people would have been using it, or something similar, so this left me with a feeling of fantasy elements which I sure didn’t expect in a book billed as the next big western.
I know I’m not usually so negative about books I review here, but I guess from all the praise heaped on this novel I was expecting more. The book has many good points too, witty dialogue for instance and I particularly enjoyed the contrasts between Eli’s care and concern for his horse, Tub, and the casual way it which he kills and treats the dead – see what he does to the corpse of the dead miner for example.
So a book full of superb character studies, fairly graphic scenes of violence (although not nearly as graphic as can be found in other westerns), told at a fast pace that proved to be an entertaining read.
FOOTNOTE: Those of you living in the UK may like to know that this book is the featured novel on The TV Book Club tomorrow night (5th February) on More4. If the programme follows its usual format it should also include a short interview with Patrick deWitt.