It’s a little difficult to pin down Patrick DeWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers. It’s definitely got elements of the picaresque. It’s a Western, certainly, but not of the Zane Grey variety (nor of the Cormac McCarthy variety, if that’s not obvious.) It’s Gothic, and it’s also weirdly funny. What would you call it? Cowboy noir, maybe?
The novel is narrated by Eli Sisters, notorious killer for hire, who travels with his brother Charlie in the pay of a mysterious and wealthy villain called the Commodore. This time, they are out to murder a man called Hermann Kermit Warm, for stealing something unknown from the Commodore.
But Eli has had enough of this life. Charlie is a drunkard and a quick hand on the trigger, but Eli yearns, incongruously, to be a storekeeper; he tries to make personal connections with the women he meets, including striving to lose weight to please them; he sticks with a slow and mutinous horse out of pity; he wishes his brother respected him more. He wants to slow down and think things through.
Sadly, the Sisters brothers’ life isn’t oriented toward the good things in life — peace, contemplation, human contact. It takes a lot of bloodshed and a lot of loss before Eli finally arrives at a place where his tender (and frankly sociopathic) heart has room to flourish; where he can literally cultivate his garden. (It’s a quite 18th-century vision in many ways, escaping widespread bloodshed for rationality and peace.)
Here’s a thing: DeWitt is obviously contemplating masculinity in this novel. What does it mean to be the epitome of the tough-guy — a Western vigilante — and still love the smell of dry-goods, the look of a wide blue ribbon given by a prostitute, the sense of a conversation with another human being? What’s possibly limiting about the way he considers this is that almost all these humanizing touches are associated with the feminine. Eli reaches out to women — prostitutes, a woman bookkeeper he meets — and to a man whose dandified use of perfumes and ointments sets him apart from the rugged and bloody norm. The end of the novel is similar: a peaceful resting place associated with the Sisters brothers’ mother. What is DeWitt implying? If it’s the old trope that women are a civilizing influence on men, that’s a bit old-hat. When I reviewed Blood Meridian, I said it had been a very long time since I’d read a book with no women in it. This book has women in it, but they are two-dimensional figures. DeWitt hints that they might have more to their stories (especially the brothers’ mother) but never fleshes this out or gives the women any serious agency.
I enjoyed this book well enough. It was light and sometimes outright funny, especially when Eli was dealing with his poor unfortunate horse, Tub. The relationship between the brothers was realistic and balanced, too; the bickering, the power dynamics, the loyalty, the little well-known habits. This is a fine entry in the cowboy noir genre, if not a great one — even if it’s the only one.