Strange, hilarious at times, mournful at others, fatalistic, laced with violence and peppered with symbolism, The Sisters Brothers is a taut picaresque Western that reads like the script of a Coen brothers movie.
It’s about two brothers, hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters, and the tale of their travels in Gold-Rush era California to find and end the life of a man, upon orders of their boss. But amidst this, Eli Sisters, who has long questioned if he is of the right temperament for this life, starts to try to dig himself and his brother out of the rut of hired killing that has been their lifeblood for years.
Eli is a great narrative figure – comical but somewhat relatable in his childlike earnestness, even as we remain aware that he is, after everything is said and done, still a killer. The gentler counterweight to his psychotic, trigger-happy brother, Eli spins his tale with what can only be described as a kind of endearing honesty, detailing his somewhat faltering and pathetic attempts at self-improvement while being stymied by the ides of fate, the judging eye of society, and the actions of his boorish, more violent brother. Eli’s earnestness provides the novel with its comic sensibility – his attempts at finding a love interest, his short-lived determination to lose weight, his wonderment at discovering the restorative properties of regular toothbrushing – all told in that incongruously formal, polite prose that for some reason characterizes the dialogue of the heroes and villains of every Hollywood-era Western.
But the comedy is tightly intertwined with the casual violence and thuggery that characterizes DeWitt’s vision of the Wild, Wild West – more akin to the pop-culture pastiches of the time, all dusty towns and pistol duels and testy barmaids, with its cavalier attitude to life and death out in the open road – than to sober historical portrayals. For all his attempts at self-improvement, Eli is always the tag-along to his brother, having little choice but to play supporting character to his brother as he intimidates, robs and shoots his way across the landscape in fulfillment of his baser inclinations.
This comes to a head when the brothers finally track down their quarry – a pioneering, industrious man with a ridiculous life story named Herman Kermit Warm, who has recently discovered a chemical that can easily reveal the location of the bountiful gold in Californian riverbeds. Eli thinks of this as a prime opportunity to abandon their life of killing, and, with much difficulty, convinces his brother to band together with Warm instead of killing him on the orders of their master. But, fittingly with the theme of dashed hopes of gold prospectors in the Western frontier, their plan doesn’t work out quite as they imagined, and Eli’s aspirations evaporate in much the same way as they started – in the violence that seems almost like the fate to which they are consigned.
The story ends on a cathartic note even as its climax is consummated in violence, a synthesis of Eli’s desire to abandon violence even as he searches for a better life. He is an almost quixotic character, an optimist who somehow retains his earnestness even as he is dealt blow after blow in life, sometimes through no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he seems to be his own Sancho Panza – he has enough self-awareness to be aware, to some degree, of his lot in life.
The Sisters Brothers offers Eli no riches for his deeds, but somewhat karmically, gives him the essence of what he claims to desire – a life outside of violence – although not exactly on the terms he had been so assiduously working for. In that sense, The Sisters Brothers can be viewed, albeit in a very twisted way, as a sort of karmic morality tale, one edged in a cinematic, almost stylised Tarantino-esque violence, tipped with the hard-edged justice of the Wild West.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 notebooks