Charles and Eli Sisters are infamous murderers for hire, and Patrick deWittt’s The Sisters Brothers follows them on what will end up being their final assignment for the Commodore: to hunt down Hermann Kermit Warm, a red-bearded man who has invented a prospector’s dream in the midst of the California gold rush. The premise and the environment and the style are all vehemently western, but deWitt’s second novel takes the western genre to a phenomenally endearing place.
What is so special about The Sisters Brothers, beyond its riveting series of adventure in the wild of untamed California, is this humanity that deWitt gives his gun-slinging protagonists. deWitt takes the role of western assassin and injects lack of confidence, fear, worry, embarrassment, and a host of other endearing flaws into the Sisters brothers, giving the reader a way to love them and to see ourselves in their faults.
Eli often blushes with embarrassment, attempts at one point to drop belly-weight in order to impress a woman, keeps with him an injured and slow-born horse, and lusts for powdered tooth paste to smooth his teeth and clean his breath, all elements that make him so much more than a heartless killer.
“It occurred to me I had not cleaned my teeth since San Francisco, and I crouched at the waterline upriver, scrubbing my tongue and gums and teeth and spitting out the foam like buckshot across the surface of the water.”
And though Eli’s brother Charlie is the worse of the brothers, the more evil and cold, even he takes a turn towards humility in The Sisters Brothers, first by losing his brother’s respect, and later by losing his gun-wielding hand:
“His tone was somber, and he said, ‘Don’t talk to me like that, Eli. I’ve lost my work hand in this. I am only telling you what is on my mind’ … He was looking away as he said it; and I had never heard him speak this way, even when we were boys. I thought he sounded something like me, actually. He had never been afraid before, that I could remember, but now he was, and he did not know what it meant or what to make of it. I told him I was sorry … and he accepted my apology.’
This engorging of humanity in our murderous protagonists culminates in the brothers’ trip back home, to their childhood stead and their mother, a woman as seemingly unsympathetic as her two sons, but still willing to share a kiss with the forsaken men:
“She hooked her arms around my neck and kissed me below my eye. Her lip was wet and cool. Her hair and face and neck smelled of sleep and soap. I walked away to my and Charlie’s old room and lay down on a mattress on the floor. It was a comfortable and clean space, if small, and I knew it would do for a while, and in its way was perfect.”
This is what lies beneath the surface tension of The Sisters Brothers, which is both a book that enthralls with its easy action and its captivating secondary cast, and a book thatlingers in the subconscious. I marvel at the way that deWitt manages to make us care for these assassins, the way that he takes our perception of western escapades and explodes them not with ammunition but with two brothers who only appeared to be invincible, but who are really the thinnest hand-made glass in a shower of unrelenting wagon-thrown rocks.