I was sitting outside the Commodore's
mansion waiting for my brother Charlie
to come outside with news of the job.
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt
This story probably didn't move most readers.
Eli and Charlie Sisters have spent their lives in the service of The Commodore, a weathly, powerful baron who reigns from his mansion in the Oregon Territory. He has sent Eli and Charlie to San Francisco to meet one of his agents who will tell them where to find the man they are to kill. Charlie does not question his job, but Eli has trouble with it. Eli has been having trouble with their line of work for some time.
The Sisters Brothers is firmly planted in Larry McMurtry territory--an American west where life was cheap and bullets flew fast and frequent, a familiar setting to fans of Deadwood. Eli and Charlie would have felt right at home in Lonesome Dove. I made no effort to keep track of how many people Eli and Charlie killed during the course of the novel, but if memory serves me correctly, it's between 12 and twenty. Not all of them deserved it, but most of them did. We are talking about a very rough sense of frontier justice, but Charlie and Eli never kill anyone they don't have to, at least from their point of view.
Which is why Eli has a problem with this particular job. The man they are supposed to kill has invented a formula for a liquid that causes gold to shine bright when poured into a stream. It doesn't seem right to Eli that they should steal this man's hard work and then kill him just so the Commodore can become even richer than he already is.
What moved me, though, were two things, Eli's narrative voice and the bond between the two brothers. Eli's narration is relatively unadorned, but his lack of advanced education and his straightforward manner of speaking, give the book's prose a quality that I found musical and probably historically accurate. Someone from 1851 should sound different than someone from 2011, when the book was published. Eli certainly does. His narration has a formal edge to it that fits the time period but doesn't reach a level higher than what his character probably would have had. He writes like someone who knows he should be more proper when writing than when speaking and like someone not familiar enough with writing to avoid sounding a little stilted. That Mr. DeWitt pulled this voice off so well, impressed me greatly. I was reminded of Charles Portis's young narrator in True Grit.
But no one is moved by a narrative voice, not really. What got to me in the end was Eli's devotion to his brother Charlie. Though both men are morally beyond the pale, if one really thinks about it, Mr. DeWitt gets what it's like to have a brother just like Norman McClean, the author of A River Runs Through It does. The narrators of both books know that their brother is somewhat lost, that they may not be able to reach him, that they may have to leave him to his fate. Eli wishes he could convince Charlie that they should leave the Commodore's employ, go back home to their mother, and set up a shop where they could make a peaceful living. He knows that Charlie is the more capable gun fighter as well. Charlie is the one who has carried them so far, but his way of life is no longer one Eli can be satisfied with.
He just can't bring himself to abandon his brother.
There's more to it than this; there was more to it in A River Runs Through It, too. The way Mr. DeWitt and Mr. McClean understand the complexities brothers share is beyond my ability to describe. It may be something it takes a novel to do. But, that is what moved me about The Sisters Brothers, what made me read the entire thing in a weekend and what made me root for Charlie and Eli even though the horrible end they seem to be heading for is one they truly deserve.