Did the Man Booker Prize take a Hard Right Turn?

“The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt (2011) – 325 pages

Looking at the Man Booker prize winners for the last three years, it makes one wonder where it’s headed. “The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga, the winner in 2008, had the traditional deeply conservative viewpoint of a large segment of the Indian population. In 2009, I suppose one might forgive the Man Booker for the continuing endless fascination with royalty, palace intrigues, and all its trappings, specifically of that most ridiculous and obnoxious of all the English kings, Henry VIII. Although I wasn’t impressed by the book, “Wolf Hall” by Hillary Mantel was probably a reasonable choice for the Man Booker. However the awarding of the prize in the following year to the not-very-good ultra right-wing “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson which was supposedly a humorous novel but was actually a grim extreme political diatribe, seems inexcusable. It makes one think that the Murdochs must have taken over the Man Booker award along with everything else in Britain and turned the Man Booker into a hard-right political award rather than a literary award.

Which brings us to our book of the day, the western “The Sisters Brothers” by Canadian author Patrick DeWitt which is long-listed for the Man Booker this year. The Sisters Brothers are hired killers out west in California during the Gold Rush. There is no frontier justice in the Sisters Brothers world; it is a ‘kill first or be killed’ world. As the novel begins, the brother Charlie has just been promoted by his boss, the Commodore, to the team lead position of the two brothers over his brother Eli. That means Charlie will get more money and Eli will get less money. Charlie has exactly the same cruel brutal view of the world as the Commodore which Eli apparently lacks.

The whole novel is from Eli’s jaded resentful point of view which is quite humorous. Not only has Eli been demoted; he has started to have human feelings which are totally unacceptable in a hired killer. Instead of selling his crippled horse Tub for horse meat, he nurses the horse along, even when the horse needs to have an eye removed. We get a lengthy graphic account of the removal of the horse’s eye. Eli even develops some meaningful relationships with women who are not prostitutes.

In a comic novel about paid killers, there is probably little room for character subtleties. The farther up in the command chain you go in the novel, the more vicious, violent, and self-serving the characters get. The few women in the novel are sketchily drawn.

Overall “The Sisters Brothers” was an enjoyable comic read, a humorous account of a reasonable man, Eli, living an unreasonable life. I found the novel worthy of its place on the Man Booker longlist. However when I compare “The Sisters Brothers” with another American western written by a Canadian, “The Last Crossing” by Guy Vanderhaeghe, I found I much preferred “The Last Crossing” even though that novel did not even make the Man Booker long list when it was published in 2002. I suppose liking a novel for its subtlety and humane approach is old-fashioned; so be it.

However, “The Sisters Brothers” with its ‘Kill first or be killed’ and ‘Take all you can get as long as you can get away with it’ mentality might be exactly what the Murdochs are looking for in a novel or in a political statement.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. This is scary. I not only agree with your cogent assessment of the last three Booker winners, I agree with your view of The Sisters Brothers.

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  2. Agreement, that is scary. I suspect there could be hundreds of things we could comfortably disagree about if we thought about it. My guess for the Man Booker favorites this year are probably Barry, Barnes, and Hollinghurst in that order, but haven’t read any of them yet.

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  3. Tony: Given your reference to Guy Vanderhaeghe (who I will admit is a personal favorite), I will note that he has a new novel — The Good Man — coming out in September (haven’t checked U.S. release dates, but they normally are the same for him). Apparently volume three in his loose Western trilogy joining The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing. I loved the first two and this is my “most-anticipated” book of the fall — The Sisters Brothers was fun, I’m hoping for more challenge from Guy.

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    • Kevin, that is great news about the new Vanderhaeghe novel coming out. I thought he was due for a new one, and I actually looked for it a couple of months ago, didn’t find anything. He is one of those writers I’ve read everything he wrote and really am looking forward to the third book in the trilogy. Even the title of this book shows the difference between Vanderhaeghe and DeWitt, since nearly everyone in DeWitt is most definitely a bad man. Having all bad men in a novel is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it is a comic novel like ‘The Sisters Brothers’.

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  4. Tony, I haven’t read DeWitt, but am interested in your notes on Booker politics. I haven’t read a Booker winner since 2007, and won’t read DeWitt, but have noticed a propensity toward violence in this year’s longlist. I’ve read Pigeon English (gang violence) and A Cupboard Full of Coats (battered woman murder). I’m sure I’ll get to one or two of the other finallists before October, but am remembering that the judges’ taste is not necessarily mine and that I would not have read many of these without the Booker excitement. Is the violence this year the preference of Booker panel chair, Dame Stella Rimington, former chief of M15, perhaps combined with Susan Hill, author of crime novels?

    Interesting about the right-wing stuff, but again I haven’t read the actual winners. My books never win. 🙂

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    • Hi Frisbee,
      Thank you for your comments. There was one particular incident that set me off on the Man Booker this year. My favorite novel so far this year is ”The Old Romantic’ by Louise Dean. It should be in competition for the Man Booker prize, because it definitely would be a worthy winner. Yet ‘The Old Romantic’ isn’t even longlisted. I suppose the Man Booker could save whatever face it has left by giving Sebastian Barry the award, because I expect his new new novel is of his usual high quality. Otherwise, I’ll be reading the winner very critically.
      I started ‘Pigeon English’ but gave it up after 60 pages, because it seemed like something I had read many times before.

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