The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick deWitt


Harper Collins
July 2011

Reviewed by Mike Meginnis


There are persistent rumors that HBO's Deadwood was scripted in blank verse. The series was notorious for its mixture of relentless obscenity and literary ambition, a rich embodiment of the tensions between the civilizing impulse that was the official motive of American westward expansion and the savagery that was its secret, constant friend. The apparent contradictions of Al Swearengen's high speech and its low subject matter were a brilliant, beautiful means of exploring the mysteries of human experience and desire that are the real subjects of any great western.

But Deadwood was far from unique in this respect. Rather it was the best variation on the two most central questions of the frontier story: what are the things inside and out that try to control us, and by what means might we master them instead? The genre's gunslingers, lawmen, prospectors, and thugs struggle to manage their needful bodies and traitorous hearts by alternating means of indulgence, withholding, brawls, shootouts, low acts, costumes, and unaccountably high speech. Cowboys so often speak so well because it is the only way to manage and civilize, however temporarily, the awful things inside them (rage, thirst, hate, lust, will) and the cruel men who would see them dead. 

Patrick deWitt's second published novel, The Sisters Brothers, is a powerful and entertaining entry into this tradition—perhaps the best since Deadwood. Where the latter concerned itself with the practicalities and politics of establishing a town where there was never one before, deWitt's novel is a more personal story of physical and moral struggle.

The story is this: the Sisters Brothers are Eli and Charlie, two notorious killers who work for the Commodore, a wealthy and vengeful man in regular need of their services. The Commodore and Charlie, the less scrupulous brother, have become concerned that Eli is not stable enough to be a professional killer. For his part, Eli—our narrator, and the more pitiable of the brothers—is eager to leave the blood-soaked business for some combination of riches, quiet life, and kind woman. However, first they must find and kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm.

The story is divided by their journey to find Warm and what they do when they find him. The first half feels leisurely at times even as it moves relentlessly forward, presenting what is in fact a tightly plotted series of encounters as a sort of loose picaresque. deWitt's ability to communicate such a sharp, stark story in rhythms appropriate to the relative emptiness and disorder of the west has an intense power that engages readers more fiercely than any ostentatiously white-knuckled thriller. And yet it is also very funny. 

These effects are multiplied by Eli's narration, which is both highly mannered and painfully direct. The style's rhetorical flourishes always inevitably reduce to the cold, hard facts of need and power:

Our unnamed previous horses had been immolated, so it was not as though we did not need these new ones but I felt we should have been given money to purchase horses of our own choosing, horses without histories and habits and names they expected to be addressed by. I was very fond of my previous horse and lately had been experiencing visions while I slept of his death, his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs… Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner… I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.

The same style controls the voices of the characters in dialog, which are all in fact the same voice with very minor variations. A reader could complain about this, might call it monotonous or false, but that would be missing the point. Even ignoring deWitt's extreme facility with this voice, the fact that every character feels compelled to speak in this way gradually comes to suggest a deep, black mystery in the novel. When a particularly inappropriate character becomes an especially strident vessel for the style—a doomsaying young girl Eli meets on the road—we begin to suspect that there is some deeper power or force speaking through the characters. Here is a portion of the little girl's strange speech, more than a little reminiscent of Eli's reflections on his horses:

'I was walking here to see this dog, which I hate. And as I slipped it its poison to kill it there appeared in this yard before me a fist-sized, swirling gray-and-black cloud. This grew bigger and was soon a foot across, then two feet, then ten—now it was as big as a house. And I felt the wind from its spinning, a cold wind, so cold it burned my face. … The cloud became bigger still, … soon lifting me into its center, where I hung in the air, tumbling lightly in circles. I think it might have been calming if the three-legged dog, now dead, was not also spinning within the orb beside me.'

What is this thing that speaks through the mouths of deWitt's characters? It is not the landscape, as in a McCarthy novel, but some trembling human desire most purely evident in Eli, who wants very badly to be a good man, but who also wants (and needs) to get what's his. The will to property, the will to power, the will to love, and the will to destruction compete in one charming and frightening character. There are few things more wonderfully shameful in fiction than knowing and still loving a killer who is only half-repentant. Eli's needs and ours culminate in the image of a golden, glowing river.

My favorite books force readers to examine their most shameful selves even as they remind us there is beauty; deWitt's mastery of his style and the inescapable logic of the plot make The Sisters Brothers a compulsively readable book, but it is his use of the western's conventions to reveal the weird, violent, awful, beautiful need that motivates our best and worst actions that make for a memorable story.