Readers of The Sisters Brothers will hardly be surprised to learn that it has been optioned for a film. After all, the fast-paced, gun-slinging Western is cinematic in scope, while its terse and comically stilted dialogue is reminiscent of recent film homages like No Country for Old Men and True Grit.

But Patrick deWitt’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut Ablutions is also a thrilling, smart and surprisingly touching read—the kind of book that translates to the big screen precisely because it’s so visual and visceral.

The brothers of the book’s title are Eli and Charlie Sisters, professional hit men who travel the frontier carrying out the underhanded orders of their enigmatic boss, an off-screen baron known only by the name “The Commodore.” At the novel’s start, The Commodore sends them to assassinate Hermann Warm, a man whose crimes neither trouble nor interest the pair. They know only their assignment, and set out from Oregon City in search of their target.

As the brothers make their way through Indian Territory, prospectors’ campsites, noisy whorehouses and finally into the heart of California Gold Rush country, the two emerge as very different men. Charlie, the oldest, is a bloodthirsty alcoholic, content to live by the laws of the Wild West and without remorse for his deeds. Meanwhile, Eli, the novel’s thoughtful and funny narrator, proves a more sensitive soul—exhausted and conflicted by his way of life, befuddled yet entranced by women, self-conscious about his rotund physique and touchingly delighted by his most recent acquisition: a toothbrush.

Though the book is more episodic (think murderous trappers, gold-gathering schemes and encounters with bears) than plot-heavy, it is always compelling and surprising. When the brothers finally come upon their mark, he is hardly what they expected. Luckily they’re in the habit of rolling with the punches—a technique that will cause readers to follow suit.

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