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The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

July 10, 2015 15 comments

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011) French title: Les frères Sisters.

My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its content ceasless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might just do as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?

DeWitt_SistersEli Sisters is the one talking. With his brother Charlie, he’s part of a duo of hitmen, the Sisters Brothers. We’re in Oregon and California at the time of the Gold Rush. The Sisters Brothers are on their way to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. It’s a job, they have no idea why the man is to be eliminated but they have no qualms about their mission. In appearance, at least.

We’re following the two brothers on their journey. Eli is our narrator and his rather candid voice needs to be reconciled with the killer curled up inside him and ready to attack if needed. Charlie is the leader and Eli follows him blindly because he doesn’t know anything else. They had a difficult childhood and their sticking together is their only way to have a family.

But now, they seem to be drifting apart. Eli would like to settle down, get married, open a shop and leave violence behind. Charlie is in a totally different place:

But yes, just as I longed for the organized solitude of the shopkeeper, so did Charlie wish for the days of continued excitement and violence, except he would no longer engage personally but dictate from behind a wall of well-armed soldiers, while he remained in perfumed rooms where fleshy women poured his drinks and crawled to the ground like hysterical infants, their backsides in the air, shivering with laughter and brandy and deviousness.

What an evocative description. You can imagine Charlie in the back room of a seedy saloon, clicking his fingers and having minions at his beck and calls while easy girls are all over him. This quote is representative of deWitt’s craft. He managed to mix the codes of westerns, demystifying the adventure and coupling it with a character who’s searching for a meaning to his life. The trip from Oregon to San Francisco is full of funny moments in the wilderness. Eli’s horse is slow and silly, they come by a haunted house, Eli gets a rash, discovers the usefulness of toothbrushes, they meet up with strangers, they fight, they camp and Patrick deWitt winks at us, saying “Remember all the classic scenes in western and see what I make of them”, like here:

Short, late-winter days, and we stopped in a dried ravine to make up camp for the night. You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, which is just what I did, without even eating a proper meal.

This picaresque novel is full of humour and I had a lot of fun reading it. It is a strange combo of humour, violence, adventure, thoughts about life set in a vivid picture of California in the 19thC. Eli’s a funny narrator…

Charlie’s door was locked and when I knocked he made a guttural sound communicating a desire for solitude.

…even candid sometimes. The reader tends to forget he’s killed a lot of people, that the Sisters Brothers are famous for their track record as cold-blooded gunmen. It’s hard to reconcile Eli, the man self-conscious about his weight, longing for conjugal bliss, generous to horses, women and kids with the professional killer he is. He cares deeply about Charlie, even if the feeling isn’t always requited.

An important part of the book is linked to the Gold Rush and the way the possibility to be rich encouraged all kinds of weird adventures. I don’t want to tell too much about that part because it would spoil the book to others.

I’m not a great fan of westerns but this modern version is worth reading. DeWitt did something new, mixing light and deep, cartoonesque descriptions with soul searching moments. He dances on the edge of sadness and comedy. He calls to our common references about the American West and it works. It’s a page turner, well-written, endearing and entertaining.

Recommended.

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