Review by Dr. Mechel Camp, Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences
Our lives are cyclical, a casting off followed by reclamation, a rejection followed by an embrace. As we grow up, we experience this attempt to push the past away, imagining that getting older will enable us to disentangle ourselves from those events that haunt or scar. In Patrick DeWitt’s new novel The Sisters Brothers, two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, share the belief that they have walked away from their family, their shared history, and the defining moments that have led them to their current employment as, well, murderers. Their tale takes the reader along for the ride, on horseback, of course, through tiny Old West towns and rapidly expanding California cities, meeting people frequently as hilarious as they are dirty and vile.
The brothers’ emotional legacy, an alcoholic father prone to wife beating, we learn about midway through the story as Charlie and Eli travel from Oregon City to Jacksonville to San Francisco. It is 1851, and the Sisters are employed by the Commodore, a character about whom we’re given little information except that he pays Charlie and Eli to kill those men foolhardy enough to take what the Commodore believes is his. The “fabled Sisters Brothers” have become the Commodore’s assassins, and the novel begins as the brothers have just escaped some horrific event during which their horses were burned in a barn, as Eli Sisters, the narrator of the story, explains: “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.” The expectation is set for a tale of violence and romanticized adventure straight out of a Zane Grey novel. That the frequently gruesome, even occasionally gory story is told with humor and tenderness is the surprise we’re given as the trip progresses, the tale changing from the classic Western we expected to a moving tale of brotherhood in a variety of forms, and the emotional bonds that brotherhood creates. Even Eli’s relationship with his new horse, Tub, underscores the idea that bonds created are hard to break. Tub’s pitiable story underlies the adventure the brothers face, beginning in the very first paragraph of the novel: “Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I do not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.” Eli’s simple, straightforward narration allows the reader to understand him and like him, and the bond created between reader and narrator reinforces the ideas about relationships in the work itself. Instead of a violent, emotionless murderer, DeWitt creates in Eli a truly likable fellow, a man who struggles with his weight and fears the dentist, who wants to find a woman’s love despite his repeated failure to do so, who seems always looking for his older brother Charlie to be the friend to him that he is just incapable of being.
Not that this isn’t a tale of adventure. The brothers arrive in California just after the Gold Rush has peaked, and the trail is scattered with men who have found great fortunes and men who have lost them. Eli explains the lure of California as if the land itself beckons to them to try their luck:
The banks were sandy but hard packed and we rode at an easy pace on opposite sides of the stream. The sun pushed through the tops of the trees and warmed our faces; the water was translucent and three-foot trout strolled upriver, or hung in the current, lazy and fat. Charlie called over to say he was impressed with California, that there was something in the air, a fortuitous energy, was the phrase he used. I did not feel this but understood what he meant. It was the thought that something as scenic as this running water might offer you not only aesthetic solace but also golden riches; the thought that the earth itself was taking care of you, was in favor of you.
In San Francisco, they find the diary of the man they’re supposed to meet, Henry Morris, who has gone ahead to locate their intended victim, the prospector Herman Kermit Warm. The Gold Rush has permeated the dreams of both men, though, and the Sisters Brothers learn their secret, a formula that causes the gold in the California streams to glow long enough for them to collect it and become rich. This scheme, of course, cannot end well, but it reminds us of why those romanticized films and novels have held our attention for decades: a belief in the power of the American West, a landscape able to provide its new possessors with power or glory or riches, if only a man is smart enough to grab it for his own. It is a continuation of the promise that the Colonies held out for the European settlers, and the earliest inkling of the American Dream that would similarly capture the imagination of the twentieth century.
Considering the title, we might expect a female influence popping up somewhere, but the women in this man’s world are stereotypical: the hard, near-passionless hotel keeper for whom Tub wants to lose weight, the “sad and beautiful” bookkeeper in Mayfield, a parade of prostitutes for Charlie and his cronies, even the gypsy-witch with her dark spells. The exception to this is the phantom little girl from the Intermission chapters whose “evil joy” in killing despite her innocent appearance reminds us that cruelty and violence don’t exist only in hired killers from a Western novel but everywhere and always. Our relegating them to a safe distance where only soulless assassins kill is a ploy to make ourselves feel different, and safe, an idea that Eli, a truly gentle character capable of murdering men he barely knows, symbolically reiterates.
At the end of the novel, Charlie and Eli have come full circle and are forced to confront the past that they tried to leave behind. Home is the place that we leave as young people, the place we reject as trivial and inconsequential in the big lives we plan to lead, and the place we embrace for its innocence and comfort when our big lives become too scary to continue. When Eli is forced to be the “lead man” for his brother, he instinctively knows where to take him, and he takes us home, too, in an ending that is as satisfying as any a reader is likely to encounter. Amidst the humor and history, magic and mystery, the paradoxical nature of people and relationships surfaces, the recognition that good and evil are tied together so intricately that they can’t be clearly defined or even identified. Because of that paradoxical nature, it’s hard at the end of the novel to figure out how we’re supposed to feel about De Witt’s strange brothers. It’s almost unimaginable that Charlie, a virtual sociopath throughout the novel, engenders our pity by the story’s end, but it is a testament to DeWitt’s skill in creating so remarkable a character as Eli Sisters that we finally can only shake our heads at the brothers, recognizing their failures and foibles but understanding that we’re their brothers, too, that many of their faults are also our own, and that regardless of our human failings, we are bound to each other in innumerable ways.