Eli and Charlie Sisters are brothers, co-workers and notorious killers. Hired guns sent on a job to track down and murder the wonderfully named Hermann Kermit Warm, accused of stealing from the mysterious, powerful and sinister boss-man known only as The Commodore.
Set in 1851 during the Gold Rush this is the set-up for Patrick DeWitt’s gloriously entertaining Western novel, a surprise but deserving addition to 2011’s Man Booker Shortlist. Following the brother’s fraught and adventure-packed journey from the Oregon Territory into California it’s a picaresque through the West at its wildest with episodes that blend effortlessly from slapstick and dark humour to brutal violence and just plain dark before taking us into realms of pathos and a genuinely sad finale.
It’s a simple and oft-told tale but the joy comes not from the originality of plot but the delightful way the story is told. On the surface the novel can be read as nothing more than an entertaining trip into a world of overweight horses, doomed prospectors, casual violence and the discovery of dental hygiene. However, with every step further into the journey we delve a little deeper into more thought-provoking, psychological territory. The story, seen through the eyes and spoken through the words of Eli, the younger and more conscientious of the two, is an introspectional exploration into family ties and notions of duty over ambition as well as being a fascinating journey into the darker realms humanity – from lust and greed to good old-fashioned self-loathing.
American fiction has a history of portraying outlaw heroes; anti-heroes. In The Sisters brothers DeWitt has quite masterfully added to the tradition as he somehow manages to create a pair of hardened men of callous and often brutal murderous violence with whom we cannot help but like and indeed root for. Surrounding them with compelling, colourful characters of exquisite eccentricity and typical of the genre without descending into cliché or parody this is a version of the American West that teems with vibrant, if not always pleasant, life.
It’s easy to draw comparisons through both style and content to past works, notably Elmore Leonard, but as each page is turned, as each episode unfolds the story merits broader relationships, in turn bringing to mind the writing of Steinbeck and Dickens or even through its kinetic ‘road’ style, Kerouac. Of course, with its Western familiarity and short, episodic chapters one cannot help but see this as a modern filmic novel of the sort that would fit snugly upon the CV of Hollywood’s own version of Charlie and Eli, the Coens.
Beyond the comparisons however, this is a hugely enjoyable blend of page-turning fun and thoughtful, lyrical and moving prose with characters, incidents and themes that linger in the mind long after the metaphoric ride into the fictional sunset.
G J Hill 2012