The Short Version: During the Gold Rush, the Sisters Brothers (Eli and Charlie) are known as two of the most dangerous men in the West. Their most recent assignment is to track down a man, kill him, and steal a formula he has developed – a formula that would make the owner a rich man. This is the story of that job.
The Review: My dad has always loved Westerns. I remember going out West for a family vacation and staying in the Zane Grey suite at the Overlook (not actually the Overlook but that hotel at the Grand Canyon on which the Overlook was partially based) and my dad being so excited. Seeing him in the wilds of Colorado, too – it was as though he was channeling past lives. To those who know my father, this is not surprising.
As for me, I love the wilderness but have never counted myself a true fan of Westerns. Sure, there are films of undeniable excellence: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and John Wayne movies and (scoff all you want but I will defend it) Back to the Future III. But the genre has never held all that much interest for me on the page, unless there’s an interesting twist. Yet here I am, reviewing a book that can really only be called a Western.
The cover art is part of what drew me to the book -the other part was the fact that it seemed to be popping up all over the internet and no one seemed to have a bad word for anything about it. During the
looting out-of-business sale at Borders, I managed to pick up a copy (along with four other novels) on the cheap and so it was a no-loss situation: even if the book wasn’t great, I got it for barely anything at all.
Interestingly, the book is kind of great. It isn’t fully great – but it is kind of great. deWitt manages to create a sense of the West as, well, the frontier. This novel is rather firmly grounded in reality (although there is a gypsy witch who does appear) but everything about the novel feels a little skewed. “Picaresque” is the word used to describe the novel most often and I’m inclined to agree – the low ‘hero’ in a corrupt world, the strange (brief) adventures with outlandish characters, the dry observations by our ‘hero’ as he moves through said adventures. It’s all there. But deWitt never has anything less than respect for his ‘source’ material – he isn’t taking the piss out of the Western genre. Instead, he’s written a straight-up Western without adornment or fuss and by allowing his main characters to have such a dry observational tone, he’s letting the realities comment on themselves. That is, there’s no sarcasm or judgmental wit here other than the sarcasm or judgmental wit that comes out of the events of the novel. He’s not passing any sort of judgment – any judgment that might arise comes simply from our own minds reflecting on the events taking place.
Eli Sisters is a character meant for John C. Reilly (interestingly, he’s thanked in the post-novel acknowledgments…) and has the most interesting arc of the novel. He’s our everyman, brought into this corrupt business by love for his brother – a brother who, while mean and harsh, is not without reciprocal love. Eli takes pity on his lame horse, Tub – Charlie scoffs but allows Eli to tend to the poor beast. Eli falls in love with a lady – Charlie teases him but doesn’t push it. They are siblings, in the realest sense, and it is a delight to watch them work. The speed at which they both commit serious violence always comes as a shock – they’re so humanized that to see them destroy a life without a second thought is startling. In those moments, you don’t want to like Eli (let alone Charlie) but you quickly realize that’s impossible. He’s just as flawed as the rest of us. So is Charlie, when it comes down to it: the last 60 pages are full of very realistic conundrums for human beings, making the cliché of “one last job” feel much less like a cliché. The struggles of conscience play out in such a way that even the most pacifist/most violent of readers will understand the dilemma. After all, the middle ground is where most of humanity plays out – and this book uses that to its advantage.
Rating: 4 out of 5. This is a Western for people who don’t like Westerns – it doesn’t rely on ridiculously phrased speech or caricatured characters but instead makes the Old West seem real. The characters are almost Dickensian in their complexity, the adventures short and almost silly but also full of the weight of life, and the feeling you take away from the book is one of satisfaction. It reads quickly and was pleasurable for the time. It is not anything spectacular but it is good. I would even say it’s worth your time.