Who could imagine a novel about a pair of contract killers could be heartwarming and sometimes sweet? The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is all that and also extremely funny. From the title to the last line, it is original and entertaining. It makes me want to read everything else DeWitt has written but that desire is tinged with fear that nothing else will be quite as good.
The narrator is Eli Sisters, and his voice is mesmerizing. He speaks simply and directly, but with a ton of soul. His vocabulary is somewhat typical of a cowboy, but he makes some unique word choices and his speech has a wonderful rhythm. We learn after several chapters that he has a strong moral code, is humble and chivalrous, and is a killer mainly due to his terrific temper, which flares up whenever his brother is threatened.
Eli’s brother Charlie is a more traditional black hat Western character. He has no issue with killing for money, tends to be impulsive and is an alcoholic.
I’ve read this book three times since purchasing it in 2011 or 2012 and it is just as delightful or more so with each reading.
Some of the key scenes offering insight into Eli’s character concern tooth brushing, a sick horse, a consumptive whore, and an amputated hand. He has a thorough disregard for money, which flows quickly and abundantly in and out of the brothers’ hands and hiding places. Eli says at the end of the novel, “It doesn’t matter what we do, money comes and goes.”
The short “intermission” chapters are like dreams or visions. Eli believes he is protected somehow supernaturally, possibly because he walked through a witch-like character’s doorway hung with strange beads. He is his brother’s keeper for sure, and we find out that his brother protected he and his mother from his father, but other than some faint Old Testament echoes, there is nothing saintly or messianic about Eli. From the little I know about the prophet Elijah, he has little in common with that Biblical character except his name. Still, there is something pure and holy about Eli.
I picked The Sisters Brothers out of my library and finished it in 48 hours. Each short chapter glows like a gold nugget in character Herman Kermit Warm’s Illuminated River. The scenes in which the brothers join their quarry Warm and his compadre Morris in hunting for gold are incredibly well drawn, easy to visualize, cinematic. They are some of the funniest, saddest, most poignant scenes in a book full of humor and melancholy.
At the end the brothers return to their mother’s home for some much needed rest. Although they’ve lost all of their money and Charlie has lost his shooting hand, there is a sense that the characters will have many more fascinating–but probably more sedate and lawful–adventures ahead of them. Sequel!!!