Reluctant assassins: A review of The Sisters Brothers


The Sisters Brothers
Patrick DeWitt
325 pages, hardcover: $24.99.
HarperCollins, 2011.

Although it's set during the Gold Rush era, Oregon author Patrick DeWitt's second novel, The Sisters Brothers, is modern Western noir at its finest. The notorious brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters work as professional hit men. Eli, the narrator, is the good-natured "fat one." Charlie, a merciless killer, is combative and boozy. The story begins in Oregon City, where the two are recruited by a bloodthirsty baron known as the Commodore. So Eli and Charlie journey south through seedy California boomtowns in search of the man they've been hired to kill, one Hermann Kermit Warm.

They meet folk lured westward by wild rumors: "There is gold tumbling down those California rivers like hop-frogs, and all you have to do is stand still and catch them in your pan." They encounter vagabonds, miscreants and lonely hearts, including a half-blind horse, crazed prospectors, an irate band of trappers, and a nicely dressed girl with a penchant for poisoning. The search for gold leaves many travelers with shattered dreams, empty pockets, or "lonely prospector mania." One such wanderer offers the brothers coffee in exchange for fire:

"Dredging my finger along the bottom of the cup, I brought up a mound of grit. I smelled and then licked this and identified it as dirt. People will often describe something as 'tasting like' dirt, but this was not the case, here -- my cup held earth and hot water, nothing more. ... I had a mind to broach the subject with him but he was so pleased to be sharing, and I did not want to upset his pride."

The author's narrative style, which merges the dark humor of the Coen brothers with the bleak simplicity of Cormac McCarthy, earned this book a recent nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. DeWitt blends comical touches -- like Eli's delight at discovering toothpaste -- with chillingly nonchalant Old West violence.

But it is Eli's depth as the narrator that brings the book to life. He is simultaneously a philosopher, an endearing suitor, and a cold-blooded killer, humanized by his unshakeable love for his brother. Charlie sleeps with Eli's woman, loses an important body part -- even goes so far as to insult Eli's horse. But the brothers simply laugh at the absurdity of it all. What pulls the book together is their unbreakable -- if occasionally inexplicable -- bond.

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