Death follows in the wake of two brothers headed to California to kill a man for their employer, a wealthy man known as “The Commodore.”
In The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt has done a 180 from his first novel Ablutions, a dark, grim story about the denizens of a seedy Hollywood bar. His new book is a darkly comic Western noir that serves notice with its whimsical title that DeWitt’s west is not the same place as the west you’ll find in a Louis L’Amour novel.
There is a lot to like here. The story is episodic and reminiscent in some ways of Little Big Man, only taking place in a more focused context. Eli and Charlie Sisters seem to run across a whole cross-section of Western types (the diligent Chinese house boy, the luckless prospectors, the soiled doves and so forth) that Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) would recognize. There’s also a tinge of superstition and the paranormal (the weird gypsy) that unsettles us a bit. What the story mostly reminds us of is a graphic novel, even though this is a fully fleshed tale that doesn’t need illustrations.
First of all, the dialogue is absolutely great. Eli’s horse-trading when he sells the Indian horse that simply walks up to him is reminiscent of Mattie’s dickering in True Grit, and there are other places where we suspect the writer might have been influenced by the Charles Portis novel, if not the movie(s) of the same name.
We meet a lot of characters on our way from Oregon City to the Bay Area where the Sisters’ brothers’ quarry is located. All of these characters come to vivid life off the page and some are particularly likable. Eli is our storyteller and he is the romantic of the duo, always falling in love with the women who cross their path. He’s also the conscience of the two and it upsets him when Charlie goes off and kills people (and their horses) when Eli thinks he doesn’t have to. Charlie is a cynical sort and definitely the alpha male, but it looks like Eli is the brains of the outfit.
Even though we only meet the Sisters’ mother at the very end of the story, she’s a presence throughout, having let them know she doesn’t really want to see them while they’re doing their evil work. The Commodore’s character is equally compelling. He’s such a pathetic little man smoking his cigar in his bath that we can’t quite believe he wields so much power. (The opposite is true for the Mother. She is sickly, possibly dying, and yet…she is formidable.)
The various men and women and children who are in the book live in their scenes and sometimes in the memories of the characters and readers will find their brief encounters leave their mark.
There is a lot of bloodshed here—some of the violence is senseless, some of it purposeful—but there’s not a lot of action. The story is a road trip movie, like True Grit or Road to Perdition. Each step in the brothers’ journey takes them deeper into the heart of darkness (another road trip story), and we actually begin to wonder if they’ve passed over a threshold into a realm that is beyond reality at points.
In some ways, this is a psychological drama. It is character-driven as Eli makes choices that bring him and his brother back from the brink—whether Charlie wants to be saved or not. The details of the western world that’s the backdrop to the tale seem authentic and well-researched. They also give a lot of life to the novel, which is a quick and easy entertainment. This novel was short-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and has won a slew of other literary accolades. They’re well-deserved.