Monday, March 19, 2012

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi Press, 2010) 325 pages

What are these two taciturn, odd brothers up to we wonder as we first turn the pages of this book? Eli, the narrator, and Charlie Sisters (the "Sisters Brothers" of the title) are on a largely unexplained mission of some sort. They are gun slingers who have killed and appear poised to kill again at the behest of The Commodore, their mysterious employer, as the novel opens in Oregon City in 1851. 

We don't learn much about the brothers initially. Charlie appears to have a drinking problem and is certainly the more violent and dominant of the two. He never met a bottle he didn't like. Eli is more sensitive, longing for a woman to spend time with, devoted to his injured horse Tub and (for that time period) unusually interested in dental hygiene. Oh, and he has a soft spot for "fallen" or unfortunate women to whom he often gives his ill-gotten gains.

The men travel to California and meet a boy - his fellow travelers have been killed or died during the course of the journey They taken him on temporarily and as summarily abandon the boy - without malice, without cruelty. It's just business. You anticipate that they might adopt the boy but no ...

The brothers  become aware of a rich ne'er do well who is seeking a valuable bear skin. They kill and skin the bear and deliver it to Mayfield, a sort of Western-style gangster with a large retinue of large but dumb gunslingers who protect them and a stable of prostitutes to keep everyone happy.

One of Mayfield's men decide to steal the bearskin and try and pin it on the brothers - this does not work out so well for him or anyone else. The bodyguards are killed, Mayfield robbed of all his savings. The men move on to San Francisco with their hoard. Eli is heartily sick of the whole venture. 

At about page 200, we learn what the true mission of the brothers is. By that time, I'm afraid, my interest is flagging a bit despite the realistic dialogue and interesting scenarios. The brothers have been ordered to kill Morris by the Commodore, a man who has allegedly discovered a formula for finding gold. First they must extract the formula from him, then kill him.

When they arrive, their intended victim has vanished with one Herman Kermit Warm but left behind a journal detailing his interactions with Warm. This particular exposition doesn't work for me as a literary device.

By this time, Eli is heartsick and world-weary. He wants to retire and open a little store much to the derision of his brother. Charlie is prepared to move on without him.

I won't reveal the rest but perhaps will mention that it ends in an unexpected but oddly pleasing way.

Certainly, deWitt's voice is unique and he comes up with scenes I have never come across in fiction before such as the removal of poor Tub's damaged eyeball with a spoon by a willing stable hand or Eli's skinning of the bear or the process by which the men find gold. This is an intriguing new voice and deWitt is certainly someone to keep an eye (or two) on.
Patrick deWitt

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