Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the middle name of the author of another book, “Doc.” She is Mary Doria Russell. It also misspelled the last name of the late Western novelist Jack Schaefer. This version has been corrected.
A few months ago, in a review of Susan Froderberg’s “Old Border Road,” I lamented that the once mighty western had faded away from American consciousness. The brilliance of that cultural insight was somewhat undercut by the fact that my review ran in The Post beneath a huge story about a movie called “True Grit.” Maybe you’ve heard of it. . . .
But fate wasn’t done with me yet.
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.
Self-conscious about his weight, he’s adorably forlorn, lonely in a way that makes you ache for him. “I had never been with a woman for longer than a night,” he tells us, “and they had always been whores. And while throughout each of these speedy encounters I tried to maintain a friendliness with the women, I knew in my heart it was false, and afterward always felt remote and caved in. I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without rather than pantomime human closeness.”
DeWitt catches Eli’s patter just right, the odd formality and naked candor of a man who’s tired of killing, who longs for “a reliable companion.” He’s generous to ladies and kind to animals, nursing his pathetic horse, Tub, so long that his brother calls him “The Protector of Moronic Beasts.” And while Charles pursues all the usual vices, nothing gives Eli more pleasure than discovering the fine-smelling, tingling feeling of brushing his teeth. “It is highly refreshing to the mouth,” he tells anyone who will listen. (The toothbrush must have been the iPad of the mid-19th century. It plays a prized roll in Dorset’s “Doc,” too.)
But when his temper is up, Eli warns us, “everything goes black and narrow.” That’s just a hint of his capacity for sudden violence, acts of fury that embarrass him in calmer moments of reflection.
His calculating brother makes a menacing foil. Coldhearted and sly, Charlie sleeps with his eyes open, except when he’s passed out drunk, which is far too often. He craves the excitement of confrontation and laughs when he blows men away. One of the most painful aspects of the novel is watching Eli thirst for his brother’s affection, even as Charlie treats him like a softhearted dimwit.
As the novel runs along, deWitt shifts the story in unpredictable directions, slowing the pace for a surreal finale in the woods that’s touched with alchemy. The black humor drops away entirely for what Eli calls in his earthy poetic voice, “a tangle of grotesqueness and failure.” After capturing the fireside camps and saloons in perfectly drawn vignettes, deWitt strips these two lethal brothers of more than they ever thought a man could lose. And then, damned if he doesn’t surprise us again with a twilight scene that’s just miraculously lovely.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS
By Patrick deWitt
Ecco. 329 pp. $24.99
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