Admittedly, I’m a genre snob. I rarely reach for historical fiction, actively avoid fantasy and can’t recall ever reading anything that could be even remotely classified as a Western, outside of Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man or Charles Portis’ True Grit.
But Patrick deWitt has done something truly miraculous with his new novel, The Sisters Brothers (Ecco, $25); he’s crafted a first-rate Western that incorporates all the familiar rootin’-tootin’ ingredients—hired killers, fancy gunplay, galloping horses, gold-seeking prospectors, Indians, world-weary prostitutes—and he’s done it with so much humor and sophistication that I started recommending the book to friends before I’d even finished it. The Sisters Brothers is so jam-packed with colorful characters spouting memorable lines, it brought to mind another pair of celebrated, idiosyncratic brothers: Joel and Ethan Coen.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are the titular hermanos of deWitt’s novel; Charlie is older, gruffer, bossier and more prone to brandy-fueled violence. Eli—the narrator—is husky, introspective and generous, but no less deadly with a gun. Together, they’ve been dispatched by their boss—a man known simply as The Commodore—to rendezvous in San Francisco with the Commodore’s scout, Henry Morris, and dispose of a prospector with a unique method for locating gold nuggets. Needless to say, the brothers’ trip from Oregon City to San Francisco is anything but run-of-the-mill. Their path is riddled with colorful characters, including an inexperienced dentist who introduces Eli to the joys of toothpaste, a gypsy woman with a flair for drama, an unstable man unable to control his own tears, a handful of disreputable women, and—for good measure—more than one grizzly bear.
DeWitt sets the action in 1851, but there’s something undeniably contemporary about his storytelling. The voice of Eli is both humorous and thoughtful, with an unusually wide range of emotion. He’s a hired killer, yes, but—in another play on a familiar Western trope—he’s decided that killing Hermann Kermit Warm will be his last job and aims to hang up his guns forever, even if it causes a rift with his brother.
The Sisters Brothers unfolds at a leisurely, satisfying pace. Charlie and Eli bicker as brothers do, frequently disagreeing over how to accomplish the tasks set before them. In the end, it’s a rowdy road trip filled with unexpected twists and turns. Ultimately, the brothers square off against their prey, with unexpected results.
I really loved this book. Should you find yourself panning for literary gold this summer, don’t dismiss The Sisters Brothers as the kind of book you don’t normally read. It’s not to be missed.