I am of two minds about Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which is fitting, because the Sisters brothers are of two minds about their life’s work. Charlie and Eli are cowboy thugs, the kind of gunslinging henchmen who shoot innocent townsfolk at their boss’s command. Charlie has always enjoyed the brutality that their work requires, while Eli just goes along with it, hoping to protect his brother. The year is 1851. The Sisters brothers are riding into the California Gold Rush for one last murder.
The Charlie Sisters in me slams a gold nugget on the counter and demands to be entertained with pistol fights, clever banter, and pratfalls; with frontier whores, mad scientists, and haggard trappers “speaking through their dirty beards.” And by God, this book delivers. The Sisters Brothers takes the language of pulpy westerns and elevates it to a beautiful picaresque, a revisionist cowboy noir told in quick, snappy chapters. “A rooster stood before me in the road, looking for a fight; I tipped my hat to him and he scooted away over the puddles, all brawn and feathers and brainlessness.”
But the Eli Sisters in me doesn’t quite see what the book is trying to accomplish. We already have the Border trilogy, Deadwood, and the hilarious nihilism of The Oregon Trail. We already have the genre-busting western madcap that The Sisters Brothers wants to be—it’s called Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, and it was written by Ishmael Reed way back in 1969. The Eli Sisters in me plops down in a rickety saloon chair and wonders why a book so scattershot and overly familiar was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; why it won the Tournament of Books.
My only answer for Eli is that in addition to its whip-smart cowboy chatter, The Sisters Brothers offers fresh proof that violence is inherently ridiculous. A man takes a spoon to a horse’s eye, and the eye pops out, “huge, nude, glistening, and ridiculous.” Another man is repeatedly pistol-whipped until his face becomes slick with blood. “He stuck out his lower lip and was attempting a show of bravery, but he looked ridiculous, like something in a butcher’s display, blood running down his chin and neck, soaking into his collar.” Violence and comedy are closely related, like brothers. In the end, Charlie and Eli abandon violence, but not comedy: They move back in with their mother.
– Brian Hurley