The Sisters Brothers
A black-comic picaresque set in Gold Rush country
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 24, 2011
The Sisters Brothersby Patrick DeWitt
Ecco, 336 pp., $24.99
The Sisters brothers are Charlie and Eli, hired guns trekking across Gold Rush country. Summarized by one of their prey as "the mean one" and "the fat one," Charlie is the elder, a bully quick to violence and to drink, and Eli is indeed on the chunky side (he's a stress eater). But Eli is also sentimental and unusually sensitive in an era and terrain dominated by pistol-fisted reactionaries – the sweetest stone-cold killer you'd ever meet.
Eli narrates DeWitt's black-comic picaresque, chronicling with an eye askant his and his brother's journey to San Francisco, where they're meant to murder a man on the order of their boss, an Old West despot known only as the Commodore. Rendered theatrically in three acts with two intermissions and an epilogue, The Sisters Brothers co-stars a sideshow of eccentrics – including a crone prone to cursing, a sniveling orphan, a failed dentist, drunken whores, and prospectors turned mad with gold-lust – and the action is at once graphic and thrilling. But it's the startlement of Eli's observations, and the musicality of his voice, that make The Sisters Brothers such a twisted delight.
Of Tub, his half-blind horse, Eli says, "I sensed in him a desire to improve himself, which perhaps was whimsy or wishful thinking on my part, but such are the musings of the traveling man." They are the musings of a man who is in alternating measures a poet, a philosopher, and a psychotic. (DeWitt doesn't buck from the monstrousness of Eli's occasional rages; after bashing in a man's skull with his heel, Eli coolly observes that "when I removed my boot it was as though I were pulling it from wet mud.") More than once those musings turn near-girlish, as Eli, hungry for connection, transfers his affections to any woman who'll show him a kindness.
Hunger in one way or another defines all the characters – hunger for power or money or maternal love – and Eli hungers for a way out of the violent life his brother has badgered him into. The Sisters Brothers follows the familiar "one-last-job-and-I'm-out" template, with exactly the kind of obstacles you'd expect from the genre. Familiar, yes, but never not fresh. Also: creepy and sometimes inscrutable, gory with multiple amputations, rollicking and wistful and roundly winning.