The Sisters Brothers
By Patrick deWitt. House of Anansi, 336 pp, hardcover
Vancouver Island–born, Oregon-based Patrick deWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, ticks off all the items on the shopping list for a perfect western: a pair of gun-toting assassins, loyal steeds, copious amounts of brandy, treacherous innkeepers, and brothels overflowing with fleshy harlots. But the narrator—a wryly comic, heartbreakingly sentimental, and immensely likable antihero—is what makes this story really stand out.
That narrator is Eli Sisters, one half of a pair of notorious professional killers. Despite his violent line of work, Eli is a big softy: a little on the hefty side, charmingly naive, romantic, and fiercely protective of his older brother. It’s this last trait that makes him so useful as an assassin: whenever brash Charlie puts himself in danger, Eli rushes in to defend him (with lethal results).
Set in 1851, the novel’s plot follows the well-trodden path of traditional quests like the Odyssey. Dispensed by their powerful and enigmatic employer, known only as the Commodore, the brothers travel from Oregon City to San Francisco to kill a gold prospector named Hermann Kermit Warm. They depart on horses seemingly built to mirror their respective constitutions: Nimble (Charlie’s ride, and rightfully named), and Tub (Eli’s horse, who’s a little slow). Their cross-country journey turns out to be rife with pitfalls, seductions, magic, and murder, not to mention the fallout from Charlie’s penchant for getting caterwaulingly drunk (results ranging from hangovers to gunfights). Along the way, Eli encounters a number of challenges that provoke an awareness of his own morality (and mortality): his existential musings cause one character to astutely comment: “Touch of the poet in you, Eli.”
Eli’s droll tone and touching pathos are very Coen brothers. He’s also a dead ringer (in my mind, anyway) for John C. Reilly, who, auspiciously, is mentioned in the long list of thanks at the end of the book. (He recently acquired film rights, and will take a starring role in the production.) It’s probably best to read The Sisters Brothers now; in a couple of years, you can brag about how it’s so much better than the movie.
Patrick deWitt will join authors Madeleine Thien and Jen Sookfong Lee for readings and discussion on Wednesday (May 25) at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, as part of the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival’s Incite series.