The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt
House of Anansi Press (2011)
I'm a genre fan, so the best way for a literary author to entice me into reading their work is to write a genre novel. In Patrick deWitt's case, he went with a western. Whether by design or destiny, I'm unconcerned why he wrote it. I'm just glad he did.
The book deals with a notorious pair of gunslingers, the Sisters Brothers, as they ride from Oregon City to San Francisco in search of their latest target as ordered by their taskmaster, the Commodore. It doesn't much matter what the man they've been hired to kill did to earn his demise, for Eli and Charlie, he is a payday. The story unfolds as told by Eli, whose appetite for killing has waned and he suspects he will quit after he and his brother kill Hermann Warm. Eli is already on the outs with the Commodore, seen as the weaker of the two brothers, and if not for Charlie's apparent comfort in the job and learning at the feet of their boos, Eli would just as soon tell the whole lot of them to go to Hell. But, his loyalty to his brother, an ironclad bond forged in their formative years, keeps him at Charlie's side in spite of his reservations.
Eli is a remarkable character with such stark swings of mood, I wondered if he might be mentally ill in some way. If he is, he's not alone, as several characters they encounter on their journey were striking with their wild moods and theatrical tirades. Eli is a lonely soul, at a crossroads in his life, with a desire to settle down and start a store back in Oregon City. So when he meets the proprietor of one of the hotels where they stay and strikes a friendship, his dreams of a different life intensify. But, each time Eli comes close to seeing some tangible quality of some other life, Charlie intercedes either with a reminder of their mission or a rough-and-tumble altercation with a newfound enemy.
As they near their target, the true nature of their task takes on a different light, and their loyalties are called into question more than once. It's a bit like Homer's Odyssey meets Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. The sweeping adventure with interludes and encounters with violent and eccentric characters, couple with the gritty, unvarnished backdrop of the 19th century gold rush. There are moments that feel utterly familiar with the other westerns I've had chance to read, but more over the book feels like a stand-out in the genre for it's dark humor and protagonist's tumultuous mindset.
For a hired gun with more than a few notches on his gun belt, Eli Sister was an utterly likable character throughout the book. The relationship he forges with his sadsack horse, Tub, was heartwarming and ultimately tragic, and unquestionably the scene-stealer of the entire book--for me, anyway.
Even if you don't go for westerns or stories about guns for hire, this is a novel well worth reading. And, hey, it was written by a Canadian author, so that was an added bonus for me.