A couple months ago, I was chatting with Bob, the proprietor of Walden Pond Books on Grand Avenue in Oakland (where you can pull a real paperback copy of Dragon’s Ark from the New Mystery section of their fine shelves and mosey up to the register to buy it). Bob and I were chewing the fat about the merits of such vintage western authors as Luke Short when he pressed into my hands a copy of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, a new novel that he promised would be the best hired gunman novel I would ever read (and I’ve read quite a few).
The Sisters Brothers made the short-list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and is about as good as promised. It’s a violent, picaresque serio-comic tale of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired killers on what may be their last murderous ride.
It’s the Pacific Northwest in the 1850s. Our tale-teller is Eli Sisters, Charlie’s younger brother and the larger and deceptively less clever of the two. Brother Charlie is the trigger and hammer behind their bloody partnership, but is also more the trigger-happy, hard-drinking and ill-tempered. Brother Eli looks down on himself from his own saddle, as his brother and most everyone else does, but he’s clearly the more soulful, more aware sibling, both to the beautiful landscape they ride through, the sordid civilization nestled within its valleys and the truth behind their vile work: that he and Charlie are not much more than simple brute murderers.
As the story goes, Eli and Charlie ride out from Oregon City on a job for their remote and malevolent employer, known only as the Commodore. Their destination is Gold Rush San Francisco and their target one Herman Warm, the inventor of an unnamed invention the Commodore claims Mr. Warm stole from him.
And so the brothers saddle up on a long, strange, and twisted trail, involving a sick one-eyed horse that Eli cottons to; broken-down, dying prospectors; lost pioneers; gimlet-eyed whores; assorted thieves; and other pungent low-lifes and grubs that would spark a twinkle in the eyes of Sam Peckinpah, Larry McMurtry, and David Milch.
Along the way, the Sisters Brothers, possessed of dread reputation, leave swirls of crimson in their tracks. And yet, in perverse poignant fashion, they are revealed as innocents in their own way as they confront the truth behind their mission. Their colorful ride takes them through a vividly drawn Gold Rush San Francisco and out to the Gold Country in the Sierra Foothills to a kind of showdown both hair-raising and genuinely surprising. In the end, to loosely paraphrase Peckinpah, these bad bad men become the children they always were again.
Author Patrick deWitt writes his entertaining book in the argot of its day. It flows with the flowery elocutionary prose that everyone spoke and wrote back then, a mostly rural world where everyone learned to speak and write from the Bible and Shakespeare. Formal turns of phrases turn delightfully about, with only a few contractions in sight. He commendably takes the genre seriously, avoiding the trap of cold-hearted, post-modern superiority that would tempt lesser hands.
Next to horror fiction, the western novel may be the most dismissed and neglected of genres. Sad to say, the success of this book, as with McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, will likely send few readers back to Luke Short, Clifton Adams (whose 1962 novel Reckless Men I think another excellent hired killer yarn), or the westerns by National Book Award nominee Loren D. Estleman. Still, it’s heartening to see serious writers turn to the old structures of the genre novel and find new trails to wander and bright flowing seams of new gold.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
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Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.