The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Poor Eli Sisters, forced to muddle through his existential crisis, navel-gazing about the direction of his life generations before “What Color Is Your Parachute?” He is as melancholy as a single gal approaching the cutoff point where it’s more likely she’ll get killed by a terrorist than receive a marriage proposal and he’s just as self-conscious about his weight. He does pick up the unusual yet refreshing habit of cleaning his teeth, so perhaps his own prospects for love late in life will markedly improve. If he lives past forty.

Eli Sisters is a hired gun capable of deep reflection and the occasional moment of rueful tenderness, joining a cinematic line of thugs we shudder to admit we cheer for. Eli would fit right into a group therapy session with Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekial 25:17-bellowing Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction or the enigmatic gunslinger William Munny, portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven.

Little Bill Daggett: “You’d be William Munny out of Missouri. Killer of women and children.”
Will Munny: “That’s right. I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

But Eli isn’t alone. His companion in pistol-whipping and whorehouse penetration is none other than his mighty brother, one Charlie Sisters. Charlie is a dark horse – mean, rarely sober, and unlike his pneumatic younger brother, lean, hard and utterly void of morality.

The year is 1851. Eli and Charlie are headed to Sacramento from Oregon City to kill the deliciously-named Hermann Kermit Warm. They have been contracted by the Commodore – a Wild West Master of the Universe – yet they aren’t certain why they are exacting revenge on the Commodore’s behalf. It hardly matters; Warm is a job. And as the brothers travel south, Eli comes to the conclusion that this job will be his last. He wants a simpler life: a sweet woman by his side, a general goods store to manage, his mother to kiss that soft place on his cheek, just above his beard.

The Sisters Brothers riffs on literature’s classic Odyssey theme – subjecting its principals to all manner of trials, seductions and diversions before delivering them to the final crucible.

It is also a literary tribute to a cinematic genre that began in the 70s with Blaxploitation films, continued into the 80s with the classic Repo Man and renewed with particular vigor, dark humor and star power by Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill) and the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men). Films in which every aspect of violence is explored with satirical glee and never found lacking. Like the films which so obviously inspired his narrative, DeWitt provides vivid detail, unusual surroundings and kookoo for Cocoa Puffs characters – imbuing the story with a surreal vibe. He succeeds fantastically in transporting the reader to the sounds, smells, sights, grit and gore of his settings.

The Sisters Brothers is very fine entertainment. Instead of adapting a Wild West vernacular, where the characters drop their ‘g’s and call each other “pard’” DeWitt’s characters speak with an elegant cadence that would make ol’ Jane A. herself stand at attention. It feels rather affected at first, but then becomes endearing. You’ll hear your own thoughts nattering away in Western Gothic long after you close the book.

But this is a book whose parts are greater than its whole. It leaves plot threads dangling like reins on a riderless horse. DeWitt tosses in silly “Intermissions” that slow the pace of the story, he wastes space on one long, boring journal entry, and Eli moped about like a chaps-wearing Eeyore. You got hand the character transformation props to his brother, Charlie. Heh. Heh. Heh.

The Sisters Brothers is a series of brilliantly written, strange, violent and hilarious events, but in the end I was left asking “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Three.Five Stars, were that an option.

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give
Or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie,
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie.
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie.

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