Combine the casual, brutal violence of Cormac McCarthy with an English comedy of manners—P.G. Wodehouse works—add a dash of Heart of Darkness, and you get the gist of what Patrick DeWitt has done, to brilliant effect, with his second novel, The Sisters Brothers. I doubt very much I’ll read a funnier, more original book than this picaresque, Wild West tale of two murderous, miscreant brothers with the oxymoronic handle for a long time.
It’s 1851, the California gold rush is on, and Eli and Charlie Sisters are about to leave Oregon City for San Francisco, where the local commodore has hired them to kill a prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. In San Francisco, the brothers will meet up with a scout named Henry Morris who has provided them with an assessment of Warm:
I have seen him fight several times, and though he typically loses, I do not think any of his opponents would wish to fight him again. He is not above biting, for example. He is bald-headed, with a wild red beard, long, gangly arms, and the protruded belly of a pregnant woman … Whenever he is engaged to speak his manner is brusque and uninviting … He does not drink often, but when he finally lifts his bottle, he lifts it to become completely drunken.
Having an “an aptitude for killing,” the brothers are undaunted by the assignment, Charlie looking forward to San Francisco like a long-awaited holiday: “It’s a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busily burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding.”
Despite their fierce reputation as a duo, however, Charlie and Eli are opposites in most respects. “Our blood is the same, we just use it differently,” Eli tells a prostitute. Charlie is the dominant, natural-born killer, which Eli attributes to the legacy of their violent father. “My father bullied Charlie and me when we were boys, and also he bullied my mother, and this is the one thing that makes me unreasonable,” he says. Charlie’s problem has always been one of moderation, for even as a youth: “he could never engage in your average fight with fists or even knives, but had to see each episode through the death.”
Paunchy Eli—the story’s narrator—is the more phlegmatic of the two, his skills honed by nurture rather than nature while defending his brother against an endless stream of vengeance-seekers. Eli’s wish is to give up the outlaw’s life and open a trading post, a suggestion met only with snarling contempt from Charlie.
On the road to San Francisco, Charlie spends his downtime drinking brandy, off-handedly murdering people and lying with prostitutes while Eli falls in love with a hotel maiden, their bond deepened by a mutual love of tooth brushing. When he’s not preoccupied with the maiden or oral hygiene, Eli complains bitterly about his horse, Tub, who on top of being slow and sway-backed, is also half-blind, having recently lost an eye. Stalwart and loyal, Tub eventually earns Eli’s begrudging respect, however—“I sensed in him a desire to improve himself”—to the degree that when the option to take the glamorous black steed of a dead Indian arises, Eli opts to stick with Tub, much to the disbelief of empathy-challenged Charlie.
When the pair reaches San Francisco, they are shocked to discover that Morris has defected with the Kurtz-like Warm, lured by the latter’s invention of a miraculous liquid that illuminates gold in water. (Unfortunately, it also putrefies any flesh it comes into contact with, as Morris and Warm discover the hard way.) With the Commodore’s true motivation to kill Warm now clear, Eli and Charlie ponder the question of whether it might not be more profitable to collaborate with Warm rather than kill him.
Much of The Sisters Brothers’ appeal is in its characters’ gnomic, deadpan utterances that straddle the line between Confucius and Yogi Berra: “The creak of bed springs suffering under the weight of a restless man is as lonely a sound as I know”; or “Her room was not the room I would have imagined, if I had had time to imagine her room, which I did not.”
But it is also a terrifically spun yarn with a satisfyingly absurd reversal-of-fortune ending. The Western has been spoofed perhaps more than any genre, but never quite in such a masterfully strange and wonderful way as this.