When a frontier baron known as the Commodore orders Charlie and Eli Sisters, his hired gunslingers, to track down and kill a prospector named Herman Kermit Warm, the brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and eventually to Warm's claim in the Sierra foothills, running into a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlor of drunken floozies, and a gang of murderous fur trappers.
Along the way they meet a splendid cast of quirky characters, all fully drawn and I have to wonder why I’ve never heard of this author. He is so skilled at both characterization and storytelling to say nothing of being very adept at the turn of a phrase. Here’s Eli’s take on loneliness:
“Shrugging, he put the bottle and needle away and said he wished to cross the street to the saloon. He invited me along, and though I did not much want to watch him grow hoggish with brandy I likewise did not wish to spend my time in the hotel room by myself, with its warped wallpaper, its drafts and dust and scent of previous boarders. The creak of bedsprings suffering under the weight of a restless man is as lonely a sound as I know.” (Page 53)
The feel of the old West is painted vividly throughout the narrative. When they finally reach San Francisco, the brothers meet a stranger who fills them in on the ways of the western town:
“The whores are working fifteen-hour shifts and are said to make thousands of dollars a day. You must understand, gentleman, that the tradition of thrift and sensible spending has vanished here. It simply does not exist any more….I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.” (Page 173)
Darkly comic, in the tradition of Mark Twain, exciting, and touching, this is a book that I can heartily recommend.
"I had in the last year or so given up whores entirely, thinking it best to go without than pantomime human closeness; and though it is unrealistic for a man in my position to be thinking such thoughts, I could not help myself: I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?"
"...let's say that she wasn't all bad, but the good was there in such measly quantities you had to keep a sharp watch lest you miss it entirely."
This was a total page turner for me. The book is long listed for the Man Booker Prize. I don't see it winning because it's just so fun -but I'd delighted it if it did win the Booker.
Sisters Brothers is just fabulous and so refreshing. The ending was the perfect touch.
5 very enthusastic stars.
There has been a lot of talk about [The Sisters Brothers] as a western, which it certainly is, but the specific genre was secondary to the story. It could just as easily have been a story about two brothers in a modern-day gang, or a Mafia story. At base, this is a story of family and loyalty and how far one can ever move away from personal history. I think deWitt chose the setting of Gold Rush California to show us how universal and timeless these issues are.
This is a fun, funny story with a serious heart, but I expected a bit more given its selection for the Booker Prize longlist. Still, a good read and one I would recommend.
The Sisters Brothers are tasked with heading to San Francisco and locating a man called Herman Kermit Warm, who has fatefully betrayed the Boss.
Their journey is the bulk of the story and the colorful, sometimes dangerous people and critters, they meet along the way. Our narrator is Eli, the youngest of the pair, a beefy, taciturn man, with some principles, a big heart and a devastating temper. He also learns the importance of dental hygiene, along the way. Charlie is simply a nasty piece of work.
This is an amazing western, funny, violent and heart-wrenching and the dialogue crackles:
“It is a wild time here, is it not?” I asked.
“It is wild. I fear it has ruined my character. It has certainly ruined the characters of others.” He nodded, as though answering himself. “Yes, it has ruined me.”
“How are you ruined?” I asked.
“How am I not?” he wondered.
Yes, there is violence, and much of it is probably gratuitous, but it is told from the viewpoint of the times. The dashing, daring-do of their antics and the wild-west scenarios are splendid. There's definitely a movie buried in here. Yet, while the action scenes are well written, with just enough detail to paint clear pictures, but not too graphic to sicken, it is the dialogue between the brothers, their victims, and their cons, that is either "roll on the floor laughing " funny, or so philosophically sophisticated that you almost have to stop and say "Wait.....did they really talk like that?" I reflected that many educated men of that era had the "classics" as their text books, so the rather archaic and complex grammar and vocabulary did in fact come naturally to them. It just sounds a bit over the top at first.
It's definitely a book about violence, about vengeance, and about revenge, but it is also a book about self-knowledge, reflection, and forgiveness. I'm not sure I'd call the ending redemptive, but it certainly was more than appropriate to the story. Even if you've never been a western fan, give this one a try. Think Hawaii 5-0 in the gold mining territory of Northern California.
Additionally, the book was also funny, and had many instances of the the best in humanity. It is the dark books which are not relieved by these other facets of humanity which give me heart burn.
As our killers wander haphazardly across Oregon and California, they meet a series of eccentric characters, some they help, some they ignore and a few they dispatch. Eli, the younger more introspective brother, narrates the story, while Charlie, who likes to think he is the brains of the outfit, exists for his next drunken spree. I loved these two brothers who nitpick at each other, but who always have each other’s backs.
From the trials and tribulations of Eli’s horse, Tub to Eli’s discovery of dental care, and his gentle musings on the nature of the opposite sex, I found this book to be mesmerizing, humorous and insightful. For a story that works on many levels, I highly recommend The Sisters Brothers.
Told from the viewpoint of the younger brother, Eli, overweight and yearning for a quieter life, the story follows the pair as they travel from Oregon to California to kill a man for their boss, for whom they've done many other "assignments". They meet quite an assortment of odd characters, and their adventures and mishaps explore the wildness of life in the old West. Most amusingly, Eli discovers tooth brushing, with which he becomes enamored. Fortunes come and go with alarming ease, as does life and death. And redemption stalks the brothers, to Eli's delight and his brother's dismay. Well worth the read.
Set in the American West during the 19th century gold rush, The Sisters Brothers is the story of Eli and Charlie, hired killers en route from Oregon to San Francisco for a job. Eli is the narrator, and portrays himself as the more sensible of the two, although he acknowledges Charlie as the leader and mastermind of their operation. Charlie is also more violent and ruthless, and doesn't hesitate to take a man down simply or convenience. And there are plenty of situations where something or someone stands in their way. And yet, on arrival in San Francisco they learn more about their target and begin to feel differently about the job they have been hired to do.
The SIsters Brothers is much more comical and heartwarming than one would expect given the considerable violence. Charlie and Eli are rather hapless killers, and their mistakes can be quite amusing. And although this is technically a Western, there are overarching themes about good and evil, and following your dreams, that sneak up on you as you devour this well-told tale.
The year is 1851. The California Gold Rush is at a fever pitch, and the Commodore has his little corner of the universe in Oregon City, Oregon nailed down tight-- due in part to the efforts of his two hired guns, brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters.
The Commodore sent another of his employees down to San Francisco to keep an eye on someone who severely displeased him. Now it is up to Eli and Charlie to go down there and kill the man.
They pack a few provisions, saddle up their horses, and set out... only nothing on this trip seems to go smoothly. Every time Charlie gets near a saloon, he has to get drunk, and they're losing time because of his hangovers. Eli has nothing but trouble with his horse, and every single person they meet along the way seems to be more than a bit strange.
This picaresque novel is a pure delight. The tale is told by younger brother Eli, and as the pages turn, it's easy to begin to wonder how on earth he could be one of the infamous Sisters Brothers-- killers that most people cross the street to avoid. Eli is so honest and forthcoming about himself and what happens along the way that when I did find out that he, indeed, did come by his reputation honestly, I was in a bit of a shock.
It is easy to fall into a line of work and be good at it whether you like it or not, but Eli's had enough. He wants to turn over a new leaf, take the money he's saved up, set up shop, and become a storekeeper. Even though his brother Charlie thinks that idea is hilarious, I was rooting for Eli every step of the way.
DeWitt makes every paragraph of his tale look as easy as falling off the proverbial log. Every character comes to vivid life (even Eli's horse) and the action flows as smooth as can be. By book's end I honestly felt as though I'd experienced life during the Gold Rush in all its grimy, scary, funny, thought-provoking glory.
My only complaint is that I finished the book far too quickly, and I'm left feeling like Oliver Twist. Please, sir-- may I have some more?
It is interesting and generally charming, but something didn't quite spark to make it amazing. But, it has depth and takes you to a new world, which is all we can really ask of a book...
My attitude about this decision was that it would be the last bit of bloodshed for my foreseeable future, if not the rest of my life; I told Charlie this and he told me that if the thought brought me comfort I should embrace it. "But," he said, "you're forgetting about the Commodore."
"Oh, yes. Well, after him then."
Charlie paused. "And there will likely be some killing related to the Commodore's death. Accusations leveled, debts owed, that sort of thing. Could be quite bloody, in fact."
I thought, Then this will be the final era of killing in my lifetime.
The Sisters Brothers is full to the brim with colorful characters and situations. There's certainly never a dull moment as the brothers make their bloody way south. My only quibble with this book is that it lacked depth and substance, but the shiny outer layer was sure pretty.
They have changed a lot, of course, since the chiselled-jaw John Wayne films of the 50’s and 60’s, which I occasionally catch on daytime television. Those were stories about man triumphing over nature, about man surviving against the wilderness and the natives, about man being manly. These days Westerns are generally used to explore the human psyche, particularly its capacity for violence.
In this sense, The Sisters Brothers is very much in line with other recent Westerns. Where it differs is in its quirkiness. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “hilarious,” as some reviewers have, but it’s certainly “darkly comic” and “off-beat,” to use other favoured terms. As an example, in the opening sentence Eli casually mentions that he and his brother have new horses, as their previous ones were “immolated.” But – like True Grit, another funny Western – it has a serious side as well.
The novel follows the titular Sisters brothers, hired killers employed by “The Commodore” in 1851 Oregon, on a mission to find and kill a California gold prospector named (in the delightfully ridiculous 19th century style) Hermann Kermit Warm. Along the trail to San Francisco they meet many strange and amusing characters, from starving children to weeping cowboys to prostitute accountants, and these encounters serve to remind Eli of other lives he could be living. He is the less dominant member of the partnership, and is not particularly wedded to life as an assassin. Eli narrates the novel with a mixture of wistfulness and resignation; when they abandon a child to his fate in the wilderness, he thinks “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.” His character arc follows his desire to leave this life of killing, matching it against his unwillingness to leave his brother’s side.
This a unique novel, and despite the strangeness of it all, DeWitt manages to give Eli a pitch-perfect voice. He is a confident and gifted writer. Of all the Booker nominees I’ve read, The Sisters Brothers is second only to Jamrach’s Menagerie as my favourite of them.
I was surprised when this made the shortlist, and prior to reading it I doubted it had a shot. A comic Western? But this Booker panel has shown that they are free of prejudice and more than happy to embrace the unusual, and so I believe The Sisters Brothers is a serious contender. I would still describe it as “an unusual choice” if it won, but wouldn’t be massively surprised.
The story is mostly about the relationship between the two brothers. Like any brotherly relationship, it is full of both love and hate, but ultimately of mutual dependence. Eli is the more humane of the two; the older brother Charlie is often cruel and has no compunction about killing people. Eli's humanity is revealed less by his averse reactions to his brother's violence than by his relationship with his horse: he is stuck with an inferior animal whom he comes to love.
The book is full of dark humor - if it were a movie, it would be directed by the Coen brothers. However, I was never quite sure what DeWitt wanted my reaction to this violence to be: with a Coen brothers movie, part of me laughs and part of me knows that I'm laughing because it's the only way to deal with how despicable people can be. With this book.... I was uncertain what the moral tone or the point of the dark humor was. Maybe I had this ungrounded feeling because the story itself didn't seem to have as much of a point, or message, or clear trajectory, as I felt like it should. Ultimately, this was a story about brothers being brothers, and I didn't feel like the black humor served much of a purpose in making the story's point.
The brothers speak in somewhat formal, stilted language, which to me is very reminiscent of 'Firefly.' I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator's delivery might have created this impression for me. Still, I wonder where this convention comes from, and it made the book feel a little artificial to me.
Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired killers, paid by the 'Commodore' in Oregon City to kill a man named Herman Kermit Warm in San Francisco at the time of the California gold rush. Much of the book is taken up with their journey to San Francisco and their encounters on route, some of which are violent and some merely bizarre. The younger brother Eli narrates the story and initially seems a somewhat suprising killer: a thoughtful man who has dreams of leaving the violence behind and setting up a trading post, and who is concerned for his horse's welfare. I particularly enjoyed Eli's minor experiences en route: discovering the joys of tooth brushing or trying to order a low-fat meal in a frontier town. Eli as well as Charlie is an extremely efficient killer however, and I think for me this is what gave the book its strength, as by making him an attractive but at the same time extremely violent character the author opens up all sorts of questions about the causes of violence. The relationship between Charlie and Eli, characterised by constant bickering combined with their sense of responsibility for each other is also really well portrayed.
The brothers run into a wide array of characters on their journey to California, and each meeting convinces Eli to examine his life and to question his brother's actions to to take a stand for himself.
"The Sisters Brothers" is a darkly comic western. Not "ha ha" funny, but one that makes you smile as the brothers, tempered by Eli's ponderings, interact with the prostitutes, shady businessmen, miners touched by Gold Fever, and even Eli's sickly horse Tub. I like how the brothers act as two sides of the same coin, Charlie viewing their work as necessary and reaping the benefits while Eli struggles to reconcile himself with all they've done. And yet, they still love and respect each other as brothers in spite of their differences. I did find the language a little odd, almost too formal for how I envision cowboys talked, but I think that adds to the philosophical nature of Eli. Not having read many westerns, I don't know if I can rightly call this a "typical" western, but this certainly is a fine example of one.
The Book Report: Achilles and Patroclus in the Old West. Brothers whose adult lives are spent murdering in the service of a venal master, the Commodore, without question or conscience. Eli Sisters, in this story, awakes to conscience, and as is inevitably the case, disaster, ruination, and tragedy ensue.
My Review: Pleasant way to wile away the hours. Some anachronisms niggled at me. I thought the storytelling voice was charming.
That's it, really. Nothing world-shaking. A very nicely made novel about people I'd cross the street to avoid in real life. If television is too unspeakably grim and Nabokov is too much work, this'll pass the time.
Two brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are hit men. One of them relishes in it; the other dreams about getting out of it. Both are great at it and are known and feared for it. It’s a tale of violence and greed, but also the story of the hope for redemption.
The rough estimate of these riches was set at fifteen thousand dollars; my take of this more than tripled my savings, and as we left the musty basement, heading up the stairs and into the light, I felt two things at once: A gladness at this turn of fortune, but also an emptiness that I did not feel more glad; or rather, a fear that my gladness was forced or false. I thought, Perhaps a man is never meant to be truly happy. Perhaps there is no such a thing in our world, after all.
My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal? … Shame, I thought. Shame and blood and degradation.
I’m really glad I read The Sisters Brothers, and I have the Booker shortlist to thank for it. I do love it when I enjoy a read that is completely unexpected.
Take Pulp Fiction, for example, which may be my favorite movie of all time. Sure, you've got some of the old ultraviolence, but what's really chilling is to see how it's part of the average work day for Jules and Vincent. Their days are filled with conversations both philosophical and mundane, punctuated by acts of violence that they accept as part of how their world works. When we think of men who can kill, we think of monsters, depraved beings who have no moral compass, an inability to reason. While that is certainly sometimes the case, sometimes we find that--behind the monster--there is just a man, one who knows that what he is doing is wrong, but does it anyway: for money, for love, for power. And what worked for Pulp Fiction is what works for The Sisters Brothers.
Charlie and Eli Sisters are two of the most feared assassins in the West, working for a shadowy figure known only as "The Commodore." Charlie, the older brother, is ruthless and power hungry, while his brother, Eli, is a sensitive sort who is prone to violence when he becomes enraged--a tool often used by Charlie to his advantage. Even in adulthood, Eli is relegated to the archetypal role of the younger brother, haplessly following and obeying his older brother, while occasionally challenging Charlie just to see how far he can be pushed.
The brothers are sent by The Commodore on an errand to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector who has crossed The Commodore in ways unknown to the brothers. Not that it matters as their job is to kill and not ask questions. The journey there provides the brothers with adequate time to be attacked by a bear, run into a backwoods witch, visit a brothel, and encounter characters curious and strange. As the men travel, we see them banter back and forth, every bit true siblings, alternately needling each other's quirks and weaknesses and then engaging in profound conversations about their beliefs and shared history.
The dialogue between the brothers is the real treat of the novel--witty and peculiarly formal (think Charles Portis' characters as portrayed in the Coen version of True Grit). As he longs for love, worries about his weight, discovers the joys of dental hygiene, and wrestles with his disdain and admiration for his one-eyed, cantankerous horse, Tub, Eli Sisters is the more relatable of the two brothers. However, before one can become too attached to either character, a scene of needless and wanton violence reminds us that both of these men are killers and, for all the contemplation of human nature the two engage in, it proves as difficult to put down a gun as it is to pick one up.
What is often a brutal story filled with violence and plenty of grizzly details is handled with so much skill and sensitivity by Patrick deWitt, that I found myself by turns laughing and sighing sadly, often within the same short paragraph. My only regret is that I didn't take note of the countless quotable sections I came across as I was reading the book, but scanning quickly through again to find those bits, I realized that much of the humour was very much contextual and that taken in isolation, bits that made me chuckle out loud like "I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head" won't come off right until there's been some buildup to that moment (though I doubt anyone will find my comment to be a spoiler). Did this novel deserve to be picked for the Booker Prize Longlist? I couldn't say because I haven't read any other contenders. Did it deserve to be picked for the Shortlist and should it win? I'd say probably not, because while there is plenty to reflect upon in this story, I wouldn't define this as a particularly profound novel, if only because it does too much of a darn good job at entertaining us. But I certainly won't fault it for that. Much recommended, but animal lovers beware that there are some harsh scenes ahead.