Read 5 pages into The Sisters Brothers and you begin comparing it to Charles Portis’ (or, for that matter, the Cohen brothers’) True Grit. Both are Westerns, obviously. Neither narrator uses contractions or slang and – despite one being a man & the other a girl – they speak in almost identical voices. Which was an intelligent choice on the author’s part when you think about it. Patrick deWitt has built his story on a foundation of prose, linking to the classic book through phrasing. Because of Portis’ book we automatically associate this bare bones style with Westerns. And having deftly established his book as a Western in this way, deWitt is left with more room to zero in on his characters & plot. The Sisters Brothers is a rare homage. One that never risks becoming derivative.
The brothers of the title are Charlie & Eli Sisters, gunslingers working for a man known only as the Commodore. Their current job is to hunt and kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a California prospector. Along the way they encounter a motley assortment of characters and adventures, all described to us by Eli. Despite his profession he is ridiculously likeable (and likeable-y ridiculous). An honorable man who, like all good Western heroes, makes no excuses for his brother or himself. But as he tells his story it becomes clear that he no longer has the heart for killing, if indeed he ever did. Charlie chose their profession. Eli continues out of loyalty to his brother and little else. Certainly not for the money, which he gives away freely to every underdog that crosses their path. Charlie, though, is a different matter entirely. And it’s the relationship between these two brothers that is at the heart of this book.
“We had many adventures together, Charlie and I, and we saw things most men do not get to see.”
The Sisters Brothers has enough gunfights, whores, horses, gamblers, hired guns, outlaws, and prospectors to satisfy even Louis L’Amour. It’s one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. One encounter in particular, when Eli & Charlie stumble onto a boy who becomes intent on joining them – whose “head invited violence” – is so funny that I read it twice. And the dynamic between Eli and his horse Tubb is equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking. Which is what struck me hardest about this novel. DeWitt carefully balances comedy and tragedy, never allowing the story to weigh too heavy on either side. And isn’t that why we love Westerns? Because they blur the lines? Good and bad, right and wrong, hero and villain – in a Western who you are is determined by the choices you make, not necessarily the consequences of those choices. Yet, ultimately, those consequences remain.
Patrick deWitt has joined the ranks of my favorite kind of author: those who are exploring genre fiction and taking it to the next level. The Sisters Brothers is a grand adventure not to be missed.
Publisher: Ecco HarperCollins, New York (2011)
ISBN: 978 0 06 204126 5
I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but that’s what initially drew me to The Sisters Brothers. Designed by Dan Stiles, the cover art has a wonderful graphic quality that made me want to hang it on the wall. The Ecco team at HarperCollins must have felt the same way. They’ve ordered a limited edition run of 12″ x 18″ art quality prints, each signed and numbered by the artist. Seriously, they are FABULOUS! And when they offered me one for my readers, I couldn’t say no.
So, here are the rules:
- One winner, open to residents of the U.S.A. only.
- The contest will run for 2 weeks.
- Leave a comment below naming your favorite Western. Books, movies and television shows will all be accepted.
- Make sure you also leave your email or twitter handle (remember to follow me!) so I can get your address if you win.
- In addition to the poster, I’ll be giving away a used galley of the book to a second winner (Patrick deWitt is also popular with American Bulldog puppies – so there is some slight scratching to the cover).
And that’s it! I’ll announce the winner on Friday, June 10th. Good luck everyone!