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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...