It’s been said that the best gift you can give someone is something they wouldn’t buy for themselves. Taking that into consideration, receiving a Christmas gift in the form of Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, 2011’s The Sisters Brothers, is made all the better. I’m not a huge fan of Westerns—I’ve never even read any from one of my literary idols, Elmore Leonard—and had I seen this on the shelf at my local bookstore I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought, and good grief, would that have been my loss.
A pair of contract killers during the height of the gold rush, Charlie and Eli Sisters are both brutal and ruthless, yet very different at the same time. Charlie, the elder, is wild and cocksure, while younger Eli is more contemplative and soft—emotionally and physically, thanks to his ample gut—and it’s through his eyes we’re told the story.
The men work for The Commodore, a scrupleless businessman who hires the brothers to travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm (if awards were given for character names, I’d bestow one upon DeWitt for this one). The Commodore has a scout in San Francisco, Morris, keeping tabs on Mr. Warm, whom the brothers are to meet upon arriving in town so he can provide them with Hermann’s whereabouts. On the surface it’s a simple plot about a hired hit, but there’s so much more to it than that. At its core, it’s about Eli’s yearning for a simpler, less violent life—maybe settling down with a good woman and becoming a shopkeeper—and the changes he and Charlie go through by the time they get back to Oregon City.
DeWitt does a marvelous job setting the tone for the novel from the outset: Having finished their last job, Eli sits outside on his new horse while Charlie is inside, discussing the pair’s next job with The Commodore. Both the brothers’ horses were burned up during their last assignment, and The Commodore has replaced them with new horses that show just what he thinks of the brothers—suave, dapper Charlie is given a fit, sturdy horse named Nimble, while Eli receives the “portly and low-backed” horse, Tub. While initially not fond of him, Eli comes to find he has a begrudging respect for Tub, sensing that the animal has “a desire to improve himself.” Over the course of the book we discover this applies to our narrator as well.
Comparisons abound for The Sisters Brothers, from the books of Cormac McCarthy to the classic westerns of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to the more off-kilter films from the Coen Brothers, even to legendary graphic novelist Frank Miller. I feel the best description is as a mash up between the brutal violence of McCarthy with the sometimes borderline absurdity of the Coen Brothers’ quirkier pictures. The picaresque nature of the story, as the brothers encounter one memorable, quirky character after another, calls to mind O Brother, Where Art Thou? (itself a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey). It’s a bit of a shame the Coens aren’t involved in the film adaptation slated for release later this year, starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Riley as Charlie and Eli.
One absurdly comic scene in the book involves the brothers finding shelter in a small home occupied by an old woman who the brothers are convinced is a witch. When they rise the following morning to find the witch gone and what they believe to be a cursed garment blocking the doorway, Charlie climbs out through a window, resolving to get help and return for his brother, who is too rotund to follow Charlie through said window.
The first half of the book is made up of several such odd encounters, my favorite of which involves a teenage boy who has been abandoned by his father. After remarking that nearly every run in he’d had with people ended with him being hit in the head, Eli sympathizes with the boy, although after ceaseless pleading from the boy to join them on their travels, Eli almost takes the same action toward him:
“I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head. It was a head that invited violence.”
Eli’s narration is strikingly eloquent and formal, a stark contrast to the contemporary novels I’ve spent the majority of my life reading, as well as a contrast to the story’s odd humor and occasional instances of brutal violence. Once Eli and Charlie reach San Francisco to make contact with Morris (and subsequently Warm), the plot shifts from somewhat absurd to slightly surreal, with a finale that’s in turns funny, somber, and touching.
I found reading this book a joy, with nary a misstep throughout. There was one brief passage I found myself flipping through, but I am notoriously impatient. The short chapters made for an easy, addicting read, and a book that I had a hard time putting down. I really can’t recommend it highly enough, so go pick it up and treat yourself to the gift of a good book.
***A final quote from Mr. Warm, one which I found highly relatable:
“Most people are chained to their own fear and stupidity and haven’t the sense to level a cold eye at just what is wrong with their lives. Most people will continue on, dissatisfied but never attempting to understand why, or how they might change things for the better, and they die with nothing in their hearts but dirt and old, thin blood—weak blood, diluted—and their memories aren’t worth a goddamned thing.”
Buy The Sisters Brothers here.
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