The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

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Eli and Charlie Sisters are traveling hitmen. They work for the Commodore, a thinly characterized, ever distant symbol of oppression and cruelty. At the start of The Sisters Brothers, the Commodore hires his angels of death to hunt down and kill Edward Kermit Warm for the crime of theft.

The Sisters Brothers is, aesthetically, a Western. It takes place in Oregon and California in the mid nineteenth century, during the California Gold Rush. Through much of the novel, Eli and Charlie simply travel; they go from place to place, meeting an assortment of strange and interesting characters. There’s an undertrained dentist. There’s an irresponsible gangster looking for a red bear pelt. This part of the book, more episodic than that which comes later, is quite well done. DeWitt paints an interesting, varied portrait of the American frontier, filled with personality, wit, stupidity, and cruelty. The novel moves very quickly; chapters are very short and DeWitt spends little time on description. The result is that this portion of the novel, which could have felt like a plodding travelogue, clips along well as DeWitt introduces us to his world and its personas. The prose is neither austere nor flashy. DeWitt’s long sentences, brought to us by Eli’s narration, flow rather well.

Along the way, we learn much about these two men: their differing personalities, their strained relationship, and their hopes for the future. Eli is, as is perfunctory in most hitman stories, tired of being a hitman. Early in the novel, it’s easy to wonder why he’s in this business in the first place. He comes across as an empathetic, conscientious individual.  But eventually we learn more of his backstory, such as the cause of his ongoing closeness with his brother. DeWitt paces this characterization well, slowly filling us in on why Eli is a good killer and why he still kills. The book is told from Eli’s first person point of view, so we always know him better than we do Charlie. Nevertheless, DeWitt handle’s Charlie well, humanizing him later in the novel, smoothing out some of his roguish characteristics.

Though DeWitt does a fine job defining and fleshing out the Sisters brothers, these personalities are hardly breaking literary ground. As alluded to before, the hitman with a heart of gold is a fairly tired trope. It’s obvious and predictable. But looked at in a vacuum, The Sisters Brothers fares well. The brothers aren’t terribly complex, but they do feel like real people with real anxieties and real thoughts.

Because we spend so much time with Eli and Charlie, much of the novel’s quality hinges on the efficacy of their relationship. They feel like convincing brothers in their oscillating treatment of one another. Eli and Charlie want different things. The former dreams of retiring and living a simple life, possibly as a shop clerk. The latter is more ambitious, hoping to one day be a man of power and status, similar to the Commodore. Understandably, they butt heads repeatedly. Their evolving relationship is the book’s real story. The quest to kill Warm is an excuse to put these brothers in uncomfortable territory that will force them to question their lifestyles and their relationship with each other.

When the brothers do reach San Francisco, the plot shifts gears. They resolve to find Warm and to find out why the Commodore wants him dead. It turns out that Warm, a resourceful scientist, has hit upon a money-making scheme. This means that the brothers are faced with an interesting decision. Should they kill him as the Commodore ordered? Should they kill him and steal his get-rich-quick scheme? Or should they join up with him? Up until this point, the Gold Rush exists in the novel’s background. Once they reach San Francisco, it becomes vital to the plot. The Gold Rush is appealing because it’s such a distillation of the American dream. Come to America and join the middle class after putting in hard work. Come to San Francisco and join the upper class after putting in very little work. Of course, both dreams are too good to be true, and DeWitt would be remiss were he not to demonstrate that. Warm is a fascinating character. In one of the novel’s lengthier episodes, we learn his eccentric backstory. Like Eli and Charlie, he also fits an archetype, that of the mad scientist. But presented with both his flaws and his virtues, he’s a believable part of this universe. His honest nature presents a good counterpart to the brothers. Interacting with him forces them into new territory, putting their lives in a different perspective.

The Commodore has an interesting function within the novel. Eli hates him. Charlie kind of likes him. We never learn much about him; he’s a distant symbol of tyranny. His lack of characterization was clearly deliberate, though I wouldn’t have minded learning more about the particulars of his relationship with the brothers. This would have made an important climactic moment near the end much more emotional.

The Sisters Brothers loses much of its footing during its final chapters. The events which close out the book are a little too neat, a little too moralizing, a little too obvious. A book which felt grounded in reality gains a spiritual pulse. Yes, the brothers encounter and fear a possible witch’s ‘curse’ early in the novel, but the ending’s tone is still an unwelcome departure from the rest of the book. It betrays the book’s chance at thematic complexity.

The Sisters Brothers is, for the most part, an enjoyable, nuanced read. It’s a convincing ride through the American West as seen by regretful hitman Eli Sisters. The novel is often funny, often suspenseful, and always easy to read. The ending was a disappointment, but it shouldn’t discourage anyone from reading the book.

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