Granta Books, 2011
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn't share his brother's appetite for whiskey and killing, he's never known anything else. But their prey isn't an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm's gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living and whom he does it for.
With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.
The Sisters Brothers is a slightly off-kilter affair. On the surface, it tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, a notorious pair of brothers known for their ruthlessness and possessing a formidable reputation as killers. The story is told through the eyes of Eli, the more sensitive brother, who despairs of Charlie's drunkenness and penchant for violence, but who nevertheless follows his brother on their missions for the enigmatic Commodore. The book follows the brothers as they take up one of these missions, this time to kill a man called Warm, who has been tracked down in California.
On the way, Charlie and Eli meet a whole host of weird and wonderful characters. Accompanied by their horses--Nimble, Charlie's healthy horse, and Tub, Eli's slightly battered, unfortunate horse--they make their way from Oregon Territory to California. Along the way, Eli begins to re-evaluate his life, no longer happy with the contract killing and living in his brother's shadow. As Charlie schemes to make money and one day usurp the Commodore, Eli dreams of settling down with a girl and leaving the bloody frontier behind.
Eli is an interesting narrator, and as a result much more well rounded than Charlie, who is a particularly unsympathetic character. Eli's relationship with Tub, and his reluctance to let his horse go even as Tub became more and more pathetic, was a nice thread. The plot itself felt reasonably thin, and by the time the brothers got to California I didn't particularly care any more about why they were there. There is a slightly not-quite-real feel to some of the book, as if the events are being seen in a dream, broad strokes and bright colours and improbable escapes.
There are some funny moments, and for the most part I found the book enjoyable, but I also found it difficult to engage with most of the characters, and as a result it felt a bit like reading a book about a bunch of stick figures (albeit stick figures wearing cowboy hats). There was enough to keep me reading, and the unfolding frontier was fun to witness, but by the end I just wanted to move on to another book and another world.
Overall rating: 6/10
Book source: Borrowed from my dad.