The second Canadian novel on this year’s Booker shortlist and, although you might not think a Western could have much in common with a story of a jazz band in Nazi Germany, I was immediately struck by the similarities to the first. Both are first person narratives involving lots of time on the road with redemption of sorts at the end of the journey. Although the car in Half Blood Blues doesn’t infuse the narrative with the same pathos as Tub, the mangy bow-backed one-eyed nag that belongs to Eli Sister, the compassionate half of the hired assassin team that is The Sisters Brothers.
Bit of a show stealer that Tub – not in the same league as Charlie’s horse, a fine fast-paced lean machine. Tub always trailing behind, his physical problems a hindrance and a vulnerability. Like his rider, Eli, walking in his ruthless brother’s shadow, his self-confidence dented by the size of his girth. All he wants is to settle down, to bail out of his life as a hired assassin. So this cowboy goes on a diet and his resulting fixation with food and the admirable loyalty he displays to his poorly steed add both comedy and humanity to the prevailing murder and mayhem.
Make no mistake, when his blood is up, Eli is a brutal killer, quite capable of capitalising on the fear that his name invokes. It’s just that he’s having second thoughts about his lifestyle. Charlie, on the other hand, is mean. When he’s not killing, he’s drinking and whoring and bickering with his brother. The dynamics of the relationship are established early on, Charlie’s in front, Eli’s behind, though it soon becomes apparent that Charlie wouldn’t last long without his brother covering his back.
On the surface, then, The Sisters Brothers is the story of two hired guns travelling through gold rush California of the trail of their next hit and the riches that will free them from their contract killing existence. It’s an amoral, adventurous and fabulously entertaining quest for fool’s gold with “zippability” in spades. Beneath the surface, however, lies a seam of real gold – a story of love and loyalty and the importance of family – the quest that The Sisters Brothers didn’t realise they were on.