Two weeks ago, I jumped on my horse and rode off in all directions to sing the praises of Mary Doria Russell’s “Doc,” a fantastic novel about Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp. And already I’m back, shooting my mouth off about Patrick deWitt’s tale of two hired guns during the Gold Rush.
We can’t fit all this in a Corrections box, but let me summarize it here: I may have exaggerated the death of the western.
Russell’s “Doc” is an intricately researched and deeply sympathetic portrayal that mocks the dime novels that immortalized the shootout at the OK Corral. DeWitt’s approach in “The Sisters Brothers” is less corrective. A Canadian who now lives in Oregon, he rides parallel to the trails of Jack Schaefer, James Carlos Blake and Cormac McCarthy, but he frequently crosses into comic territory to produce a story that’s weirdly funny, startlingly violent and steeped in sadness.
If Eli and Charles Sisters come after you, brush up your will. Run and they’ll find you. Deal and they’ll trick you. Draw and they’ll shoot you. They’re the fabled assassins at the center of this bloody buddy story set on the West Coast in 1851.
As the Gold Rush induces “thousands of previously intelligent men and women to abandon their families and homes forever,” Eli and Charles serve as the killing arms of the Commodore, a shadowy tycoon in Oregon City, “whose influence could be found in every corner of the country.” At the start of the novel, he dispatches the Sisters brothers to Sacramento to kill a gold prospector named Herman Kermit Warm. They don’t know what Mr. Warm has done wrong — taken something, they suppose — but it makes no difference to their patient, implacable progress: He’s a dead man. Their weeks-long journey on horseback to hunt him down provides the itinerary for this picaresque adventure.
At first, nothing the brothers do or encounter is particularly unusual for this time and place: starving children in the woods, men driven insane by solitude, noisy whorehouses and dirty saloons. Early on, Eli admits, “You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace.” But deWitt keeps these brief chapters cantering along from one tense fix to another as the brothers slaughter, drink and sleep their way south.
It’s all rendered irresistible by Eli Sisters, who narrates with a mixture of melancholy and thoughtfulness. He’s a reluctant murderer — he’d rather be a shopkeeper — but assassination is a job, the only one he’s ever had, and it keeps him close to his brother, which is nice. He describes their progress toward Sacramento with deadpan sincerity flecked with earnestness and despair.