“…The Sisters Brothers is the book the Coen Brothers might have written had they not become film-makers instead.”
In The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, Charlie and Eli Sisters are guns-for-hire, sent on a mission by the Commodore. With a name like the Commodore, you have to be involved in some shady dealings that require the help of hit men. He sends the assassins to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, again, a fine name to embody a mysterious character waiting at the end of an epic journey.
We follow these outlaws on their odyssey across the dust-strewn plains of an America still in the grip of the manic hunt for gold. The Sisters Brothers are synonymous with death and destruction and everyone knows to give them a wide berth. As the story progresses, Charlie and Eli find their reputation waiting for them wherever they go in the form of the fear and mistrust of the layman. They meet an ensemble of losers, victims of circumstance, and once-normal men tipped over the edge of sanity by the harsh realisation that their American dream was just that.
-“…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”
Despite its grim setting, DeWitt’s Gold-Rush America has an air of the fantastical about it. The descriptions of the landscape are minimal enough to have been captured from a dream and every character seems to represent their own misfortune.
It’s a funny book, mainly because it is peopled by a collection of sharp-tongued, cuss-slinging smartasses. The one-liners and imaginative put-downs are so regular as to provide an honest-to-god pulse for the story.
The book isn’t without its harsh and gruesome scenes (There’s a particular incident with an ailing horse that I won’t go into here), but our characters can find their own joy in the strangest places. Towards the beginning of the book, Eli, the narrator, is introduced to a new-fangled doo-hickey called a toothbrush and he is so awed that he spends the rest of the story extolling its virtues to everyone he meets.
-“I will never be a leader of men, and neither do I want to be one, and neither do I want to be led. I thought: I want to lead only myself.”
All in all, this is a tale of redemption.
The brothers come to a head when Eli begins to question the life they’ve chosen. He dreams of a simpler life without any killing, but his brother doesn’t share his sentimental bullshit. Death is paying work after all.
This book made the shortlist for the 2011 Man Booker prize and has received great critical acclaim since its publication. It’s still one of my go-to books whenever a customer is looking for something good, something different and I’ve yet to hear any complaints.
If you’ve already had the pleasure, be sure to pick up a copy of Ablutions, DeWitt’s first novel. This is a contemporary tale of alcoholism and inertia set in a seedy Hollywood bar peopled by a wealth of human detritus.
As for the future, there hasn’t yet been a peep from DeWitt regarding any upcoming projects. It’s a shame to have to wait, but in the meantime, you can always read the Sisters Brothers again.