A very engaging read about two brothers who are hired killers, set during the California gold rush. The narrator of the book is Eli, one half of the Sisters Brothers and a somewhat unlikely assassin. Eli is portly and thoughtful, with a desire to be loved that is touching given his hopelessness at knowing how to go about it. Eli’s brother Charlie is a more stereotypical western gunman, hard drinking and often unnecessarily cruel. At the heart of the book is the brothers’ bond with each other, a bond that keeps Eli from being a better man and Charlie from being a worse one. At one point we are given a fairly predictable backstory of how the brothers came to be the way they are.
As a story of the brothers’ odyssey on their way to carry out a killing, the book has the requisite encounters with the odd assortment of colorful and entertaining characters. The dialogue is written in the formalized, contraction-less style of westerns such as True Grit and Woe to Live on, and the language works well with the droll sense of humor that permeates the book.
One of the things I consider almost a prerequisite for a good western (or ‘anti-western’) is that it convey a sense of the landscape and the culture of its setting. This is one area where I think DeWitt falls short. While there are some excellent descriptions of people and particular locations, DeWitt fails to provide any larger sense of place. This is a particularly unfortunate failure, given the rich possibilities of the California gold rush era. There are also occasional surreal / supernatural passages that have some intense imagery but that don’t integrate well with the rest of the novel.
I’m not sure why this book garnered quite so much critical praise, as it doesn’t seem to have any particularly deep themes or revelatory insights into human nature. It is, however, a very entertaining read that I recommend for its excellent characters and story and for its pervasive dry humor.