Eli Sisters is a hopeless romantic, an armchair philosopher, an animal lover, a yo-yo dieter, and a big proponent of oral hygiene. Unremarkable in our era, he feels like a stranded time-traveler in The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt’s lightly comic Western, which echoes the odd-couple dynamic and deadpan delivery of Charles Portis’ True Grit. Eli’s sensitivities aren’t the only anachronisms here, but the book’s cool indifference to historical accuracy comes off as just more slacker charm in an unhurried, often engaging tale of men trampled underfoot during the California gold rush.
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.
In the “Intermissions” which occasionally invade the text, there’s a whiff of the metafiction angle that DeWitt employed in his debut, Ablutions: Notes For A Novel, but he generally plays it straight. He efficiently, though not altogether convincingly, sketches the sibling dynamic that holds the brothers together through all the bloodshed—and through Eli’s pangs of conscience as he contemplates life on the other side of the law. Eli is a sympathetic killer who’s really just a homebody at heart; his greatest sin was being born the brother of a brilliant assassin.
There’s a sense that DeWitt is more interested in dreaming up characters than in giving them much to do, and Sisters Brothers sometimes feels aimless in the long lead-up to the confrontation with Warm. Mostly, though, the brothers’ punchily poetic banter and the book’s bracing bursts of violence keep this campfire yarn pulled taut, even though the twist-filled finale feels abrupt, and the frequent reversals of fortune eventually lose their impact. Part of what makes Charlie and Eli such sadly sympathetic characters, though, is how starting again from scratch never seems to faze them. After all, they never expected to live long enough for a second shot.