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Patrick deWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers” Gets Gritty in the Gold Rush Era

The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

Reviewed by J. David Santen Jr.
The Oregonian

Two men in the employ of a man known as the Commodore have been sent to California to kill a prospector.

"It turns out, and I don't know why this is, and have at times wished it were not so, but yes -- we had or have an aptitude for killing," Eli Sisters says, as he explains how he and his brother Charlie found their vocation, for which they are feared far and wide.

These are the title characters in Portland writer Patrick deWitt's new novel, The Sisters Brothers, set in Gold Rush-era 1850s.

Eli, the oversized younger sibling, narrates. Leaving Oregon City, he has a problem with his new horse, Tub, who "would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner." Brother Charlie, who has been appointed lead on the operation, rides a more capable steed named Nimble. He drinks too much.

Balking at the prospect of yet another murder for hire, Eli asks Charlie about the prospector. "What has this Hermann Warm done?"

"Taken something of the Commodore's."

"What has he taken?"

"This will be revealed soon enough. To kill him is the thing."

Killing is always the thing. And so once again, down those mean trails the Sisters brothers must ride, this time to San Francisco where they will meet with "a dandy named Henry Morris" who will, in turn direct them to their target.

Along the way the two encounter, among others: prospectors, prostitutes, criminals, an old witch, a dead Indian, a dentist (who first acquaints Eli with tooth brushing) and a weeping man leading a horse.

Their exploits are spirited and often humorous, even against an ominous backdrop of blood and greed and gold. In one, the brothers consider the complaints of an adversary whom they have bested and whose life is now in their hands:

"He describes his inaction and cowardice as laziness," Charlie said.

"And with five men dead," I said, "he describes our overtaking his riches as easy."

"He has a describing problem," said Charlie.

Patrick deWitt's picaresque narrative works with a wink and a nod of reverence, squaring with recent revivals of the Western in popular culture, namely HBO's Deadwood. (Charles Portis' novel and the Coen brothers' film adaptation of True Grit also beg for comparison. Actor John C. Reilly's production company has already optioned deWitt's novel with Reilly slated for the role of Eli.)

Patrick deWitt's prior work and debut, Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, warranted a heap of praise from reviewers around the country. It was good.

This is better. Not perfect -- readers may quibble over the balance deWitt strikes between character development and plot progression (his story and the genre favor the latter). But good enough to propel the reader forward, mindless of pages turned or hours burned.

Through allegiance and betrayal, theft of life and loss of limb, Eli and Charlie plunge deeper into the wilds in pursuit of their quarry. A showdown imminent, the Sisters brothers divine new opportunities that will test their commitment to mission, vocation and each other. Fate, they'll discover, isn't preordained. Just a little predisposed, and yet to be sealed.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Sisters Brothers
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. True Grit Used Trade Paper $8.95
  3. Ablutions: Notes for a Novel
    Used Trade Paper $9.95

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