[This gripping adventure-Western is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Patrick deWitt

2011, Ecco

Filed under: Literary, Western

The Sisters Brothers is a masterfully written Western that features a pair of ruthless hired gunmen, Charlie and Eli Sisters. They’re on a job, which means they’re tracking down a man to kill him. On the way they find floozies, witches, gangs, gunfights, and the growing suspicion that murdering people is killing them.

If you’re just looking for a good book to read, and you like Westerns or adventures or crime fiction, or anything close, just go read it fresh. The rest of this review is for anyone who needs a bit more convincing.

The capsule review that convinced me to try The Sisters Brothers described it as a “revisionist Western.” That phrase nails the innovation of Sisters, but its slightly postmodern tang doesn’t fit. deWitt’s not mixing his genres here, unless his superb prose counts as mixing in “literary.” Sisters is simply an excellent Western—“revisionist” in that it features a novel approach, but classical enough that it could’ve been written a century ago.

deWitt’s most obvious revision (I admit I’m not a student of Westerns) exhibits itself in the character of the Sisterses. Put plainly, they’re the bad guys. Charlie and Eli kill: for a living, when there’s trouble, when there might be trouble. They kill frequently and mercilessly, seemingly without a second thought. When they run across a starving boy who tries to follow them on a worn-out horse, they laugh as he quickly falls behind, and they don’t think twice about leaving him for dead.

The brothers are not anti-heroes or vigilantes or freedom fighters. They do not conform to an unconventional moral code, they conform to no moral code at all. But they are not sociopaths and deWitt’s nuanced characterization of such men makes this novel great.

Eli, who narrates, often skips over the details of violence, using phrases like “After we had dispatched the hand…” Slowly, you begin to realize that the brothers’s work disturbs him in a way he hates to experience, or even think about. He pines for a cleaner, more peaceful life. He gives his money (mostly gathered from the corpses of vanquished enemies) to any woman who displays a hint of kindness toward him. He weirdly tries dieting, hoping to increase his chances of finding a wife. He’s desperately lonely.

Charlie, for his part, sleeps with whores, and rapes at least one who won’t take money. He’s the “lead man,” newly appointed by the brothers’s shadowy boss, the Commodore—it’s a position that rankles Eli. Charlie appears to care about nothing at all, but when Eli threatens to quit, Charlie all but asks him to stay and the sudden kindness reveals how much he relies on his brother.

These two are horrible men, and yet they invite sympathy. And yet I liked them. That’s just the beginning; you could write a dissertation on the Sisters brothers, as complex and nuanced as they are. But Eli’s voice—drily funny and perfectly toned—never lets the narrative sag under the weight of character study. The title of the novel showcases deWitt’s willingness to crack wise, but cracking wise underreports his talents. Take this passage, from the first paragraph of the first chapter:

My new horse was named Tub. We did not believe in naming horses but they were given to us as partial payment for the last job with names intact, so that was that. 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.

Tub plays a huge role in the book, but DeWitt slides the important details under your nose, camouflaged in entertaining, compelling prose.

Beyond the humor of it, deWitt simply writes damn well, without fanfare or flourish. For instance, Eli describes the sense that he’s being watched like this: “I felt a weight of eyes on me…”

But past the comedy and the prose, both the depth and the pleasure of Sisters emanate from its excellent characters, not just Charlie and Eli but also the starving boy, the witch, the gang of fur trappers. Each is not just an obstacle or an episode, but a full round piece of a lively, complex, dangerous world.

Perhaps it’s a “hilarious picaresque,” perhaps a “revisionist Western,” or a “genre-bending frontier saga.” Personally, I’d call it a fine example of simple, outstanding genre writing. Whatever its label, it’s an excellent novel, and not to be missed.

Similar reads: No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. Patrick deWitt’s previous novel, Ablutions, also looks interesting. Also, read The Universe in Miniature in Miniature for another Great Read full of funny, serious genre fiction (in Universe‘s case, science fiction).