The Sisters Brothers ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt is a novel set in the American West in the 1850s. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired guns (glorified errand boys) working for a powerful man in Oregon City known simply as “the Commodore.” The story is related in the first-person voice of Eli Sisters. Eli is more passive and inward-directed than his brother Charlie. He is sympathetic toward animals and doesn’t take very well to killing. Charlie, on the other hand, is an expert marksman and doesn’t mind killing whenever the occasion calls for it. Eli is on the fat side and has freckles. Although we aren’t told much about the way he looks, we get the impression that Charlie is better looking and has better luck with the ladies than Eli. Charlie is the leader and Eli the follower.
The Commodore has his panties in a bunch over what he refers to simply as “the formula,” which he doesn’t bother to explain to Eli and Charlie. He only tells them he wants the formula and he sends them to San Francisco to get it. He has previously sent a hireling known as Morris to get it, but Morris has apparently defected to the other side, as represented by one Hermann Kermit Warm, the inventor of the formula. Eli and Charlie have picaresque adventures as they travel from Oregon to California and, once they are in San Francisco and find Morris and Warm, they discover, through a “journal” left behind by Morris (how convenient!), what the formula is all about.
California has recently been gripped by gold rush fever. Thousands of people are flocking to the West with the hope of becoming rich. The prospectors who don’t extract the gold from the ground pan for it in mountain streams, a tedious pursuit, at best. The formula is a toxic mix of chemicals that, when poured into the river, cause the gold nuggets to “light up” in such a way that they can be easily extracted from the dirt and rock. There are some problems with the formula, however. The gold lights up for only about fifteen minutes, and the formula, when it comes into contact with human skin, is highly corrosive, causing painful, oozing blisters and serious injury.
Morris and Hermann Kermit Warm have a story of their own. When Morris was back in “civilization,” he was a perfumed “dandy,” rather effeminate and obviously gay, although that word is never used. He and Warm have discovered they are simpatico and have allied themselves with each other. It is an unusual “friendship” for the time and place. Although Eli and Charlie are supposed to kill Morris for the Commodore, they join up with Morris and Warm in an alliance that they believe will make them rich and independent of the Commodore.
The Sisters Brothers is a “noir western,” definitely on the dark side but with a touch of “gallows” humor. What happens to Eli’s horse, Tub, is not in the least funny; nor is the fate that befalls Morris and Warm or Charlie’s shooting hand. All in all, though, it’s a breezy and entertaining 325 pages. For the compulsive reader like me, it’s a compulsively readable novel.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp