At first, nothing the brothers do or encounter is particularly unusual for this time and place: starving children in the woods, men driven insane by solitude, noisy whorehouses and dirty saloons … It’s all rendered irresistible by Eli Sisters, who narrates with a mixture of melancholy and thoughtfulness. He’s a reluctant murderer — he’d rather be a shopkeeper — but assassination is a job, the only one he’s ever had, and it keeps him close to his brother, which is nice. He describes their progress toward Sacramento with deadpan sincerity flecked with earnestness and despair … DeWitt catches Eli’s patter just right, the odd formality and naked candor of a man who’s tired of killing, who longs for ‘a reliable companion.’
If Eli is a little slow, he's also coming awake — compassion is unfolding in him, and he's considering the possibility of a new life. As the book follows the Sisters brothers on their quest to assassinate one Hermann Kermit Warm, it also tracks Eli's change. He starts out a brute who goes blank with murderous rage and soon becomes an equally brutish man pleased by the minty taste of the toothpowder a dentist gives him. Just how civilized will he become? … The Sisters Brothers frontier is more poetic than realistic but as easy to slip into as the old HBO series Deadwood. But where an onscreen western shows the setting, this book has few descriptions of landscape or buildings they visit. What gets described, instead, are bodily woes. Charlie's bad drunks and worse hangovers include lots of vomiting, Eli has injuries that bleed and swell, and the decline of Tub, Eli's horse, after getting swatted by a grizzly is, in the end, grisly.
These characters and their names, not completely Dickensian, or even Pynchonian, but not exactly commonplace either, are emblematic of Patrick DeWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers — not always serious, not always funny, sometimes derivative of old westerns, sometimes a parody of them … It’s...usually narrated in a gritty vernacular, and the version of 19th-century Western speech in The Sisters Brothers is surely gritty, as well as deadpan and often very comic. Eli Sisters tells the story in a loftily formal fashion, doggedly literal, vulgar and polite at turns, squeezing humor out of stating the obvious with flowery melodrama … Picaresques are by nature episodic, but this doesn’t justify a plot with so many anticlimaxes and dead ends. DeWitt seems to be fond of rescuing his characters from dire predicaments by means of convenient expedients, like gunmen falling out of trees, but is this parody or laziness?
[The Sisters brothers] travel from one confrontation to the next. They make it to Sacramento, but nothing about their journey is expected. The chapters are tightly written, each moving the narrative forward without detour. DeWitt writes with clarity, both with respect to his characters and the time and place through which they travel … It doesn’t take long for the reader to become invested in Eli — in his hopes, worries, questions and doubts. Charlie comes across as the more dangerous of the two, but this is Eli’s story; given the chance, Charlie would certainly offer a different rendering of events. And though Charlie would argue with Eli’s version of events, it is impossible for any to argue with the effect of Eli’s quirky voice. He is a warm narrator telling a story that is original, entrancing and entertaining.
Charlie and Eli are psychopaths as well as contract killers, young men who leave a gratuitous trail of violence in their wake. Their only bond is to one another, and this bond is fraying. Eli, the narrator, has discovered his conscience, and his doubts gradually change the relationship between the two men … The Sisters brothers have been contracted by their mysterious employer, the Commodore, to find Hermann Kermit Warm and do away with him. Warm’s name, along with his ridiculous invention, a liquid that makes the gold in the streams of California sparkle and separate out from other minerals, alerts us to the absurd premise of the novel. As we follow one violent, caricatured episode after another, we realise that The Sisters Brothers is ostensibly a witty noir version of Don Quixote … The Sisters Brothers is not really an adventure story or a historical novel, however. It is a blackly comic fable about the usual wild west themes: emptiness, loneliness and the hollow lure of gold.
The novel does not follow a traditional narrative arc. Eli and Charlie travel from hitching post to hitching post on their way to meet their prey, so it’s essentially a road novel. The first half of the book is, to a large degree, a series of vignettes...When the brothers zero in on their mark, the book settles into a more conventional plot structure, which is not to say it becomes conventional … The Sisters Brothers is a valiant effort to break the rules and make it work anyway, and DeWitt gets away with it surprisingly frequently. It’s a brave experiment and it takes some getting used to, but the world is fascinating, the character are rich and clichés be there none.
The book seduces us to its characters, and draws us on the strength of deWitt's subtle, nothing-wasted prose. He writes with gorgeous precision about the grotesque: an amputation, a gouged eye, a con in a dive bar, a nauseating body count … DeWitt, like Tarantino, seems to relish the mash-up between our sordid, murderous selves and our better angels. One point is clear: Once the slaughter begins, once the wars are started, the hounds of hell are truly difficult to corral. The Sisters brothers want – of all things – to get home to their mother.
Eli narrates DeWitt's black-comic picaresque, chronicling with an eye askant his and his brother's journey to San Francisco, where they're meant to murder a man on the order of their boss, an Old West despot known only as the Commodore. Rendered theatrically in three acts with two intermissions and an epilogue, The Sisters Brothers co-stars a sideshow of eccentrics – including a crone prone to cursing, a sniveling orphan, a failed dentist, drunken whores, and prospectors turned mad with gold-lust – and the action is at once graphic and thrilling. But it's the startlement of Eli's observations, and the musicality of his voice, that make The Sisters Brothers such a twisted delight.
It seems like a plot straight out of a spaghetti western, but from the start, deWitt has more than a few tricks in his saddlebag. Narrated in delicious deadpan by Eli, the kinder of the two brothers, (‘Our blood is the same, we just use it differently,’ Eli explains) the two men embark on a series of picaresque misadventures … The prime pleasure of the book is in deWitt’s charismatic characters. Charlie, an alcoholic, seems to love bloodshed as much as he does liquor, cheerfully dispatching his victims with a gun, an ax, or whatever he has available. But while Charlie’s wedded to the job, Eli’s losing his appetite for killing and violence and painstakingly begins to struggle to find the moral compass that will set them both right.
Along the way the two encounter, among others: prospectors, prostitutes, criminals, an old witch, a dead Indian, a dentist (who first acquaints Eli with tooth brushing) and a weeping man leading a horse.Their exploits are spirited and often humorous, even against an ominous backdrop of blood and greed and gold … Patrick deWitt's picaresque narrative works with a wink and a nod of reverence, squaring with recent revivals of the Western in popular culture.
DeWitt’s exploitations of the picaresque form are striking, and he has a wonderful way of exercising his comic gifts without ever compromising the novel’s gradual accumulation of darkness, disgust, and foreboding. Much of this has to do with Eli’s narration, which is a strange and lovely linguistic artifact, curiously formal in its delivery and yet intimate and unguarded … The book becomes incrementally darker the closer the Sisters boys get to tracking down Warm, but it never comes close to being overwhelming, or even, finally, all that disturbing. For all that Eli’s narrative is beautifully composed, and for all the vividness of deWitt’s depictions of mid-19th-century California as a hellish chaos of gold-rush greed, the novel feels, in the best sense, like a high-grade entertainment.
While Eli is especially ill-suited to his current occupation as a hired gun for the shadowy Commodore, his colder-blooded brother Charlie is a perfect fit. Together, they’ve been tasked with putting an end to one Hermann Kermitt Warm, a prospector with a claim outside Sacramento; Kermitt’s innovations in gold-panning situate him somewhere between chemistry buff and sorcerer. Separating Warm and the Sisters brothers, though, are hundreds of miles of prairie wasteland and a dozen loosely connected vignettes that include, among other things, hex-dodging, amateur dentistry, and brain-damaged horses. In all of them, life and fortunes hang in the balance, and often the right choice is about as clear as a cup of cowboy coffee.
Eli's deadpan narration is at times strangely funny (as when he discovers dental hygiene, thanks to a frontier dentist dispensing free samples of ‘tooth powder that produced a minty foam’) but maintains the power to stir heartbreak, as with Eli's infatuation with a consumptive hotel bookkeeper. As more of the brothers' story is teased out, Charlie and Eli explore the human implications of many of the clichés of the old west and come off looking less and less like killers and more like traumatized young men.
The unusual title refers to Charlie and Eli Sisters, the latter of whom narrates the novel. The narrative style is flat, almost unfeeling, though the action turns toward the cold-blooded. It’s 1851, and the mysterious Commodore has hired the Sisters brothers to execute a man who’s turned against him … DeWitt creates a homage to life in the Wild West but at the same time reveals its brutality.