The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, Granta, RRP£12.99, 325 pages
In Canadian writer Patrick deWitt’s new novel, Eli and Charlie Sisters, who go by the neat oxymoron of the Sisters brothers, are on their way out west. Their brief is to kill a man who has invented a special liquid to extract gold from rivers, and steal his secret. Charlie and Eli are psychopaths as well as contract killers, young men who leave a gratuitous trail of violence in their wake. Their only bond is to one another, and this bond is fraying.
Eli, the narrator, has discovered his conscience, and his doubts gradually change the relationship between the two men. As the brothers travel towards San Francisco, Eli gets in touch with his soft side. He wants a woman, a life; he wishes he were not so filthy and fat, begins to brush his teeth and goes on a diet; he reveals his love for his broken wreck of a horse. In fact, he doesn’t really want to kill any more – he’s had enough. But there is no way out: a psychopath with a sensitive side won’t do. The Sisters brothers have been contracted by their mysterious employer, the Commodore, to find Hermann Kermit Warm and do away with him.
Warm’s name, along with his ridiculous invention, a liquid that makes the gold in the streams of California sparkle and separate out from other minerals, alerts us to the absurd premise of the novel. As we follow one violent, caricatured episode after another, we realise that The Sisters Brothers is ostensibly a witty noir version of Don Quixote. And its message is the same: no matter who you meet, what you do and how far you travel, you will eventually see yourself as you really are, go home and live a decent life without adventure. The motley characters the brothers encounter are deWitt’s versions of Cervantes’ prostitutes, innkeepers, priests and villains.
All such picaresque stories, from Jack Kerouac to Patrick O’Brian or even Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”, have male friendship at their core; women are peripheral. Far more important than girlfriends or gallantry are the ships, cars, motorbikes and horses that the men travel on or in.
This is equally true of The Sisters Brothers, which charts the shifting balance of power between Eli and his older brother Charlie. While at the beginning Charlie calls the shots – often literally – by the end, the stubborn Eli prevails. And while a few women come and go in frowsy hotels, Eli’s only real relationship – apart from with Charlie – is with his horse Tub. Tub – a mixture of Rocinante, Quixote’s horse, with a twist of Sancho Panza’s donkey – is a hopeless beast with a festering eye infection. In one absurdly black scene, Tub’s eye is removed with a heated spoon, Eli pours alcohol and then dentist’s anaesthetic into the hole for days, only to see him die in the end.
By the time the brothers finally arrive in San Francisco, Eli has undermined even Charlie’s appetite for violence. Instead of killing Warm, they decide to join him in his quest. The liquid turns out to be horrifically scarifying: Warm and his friend Morris literally rot away before the Sisters brothers’ eyes. Indians arrive and remove the bucket of gold. What can they do but turn their horses round and go back home to mother?
DeWitt’s story is hugely entertaining. There are a few stylistic slips where modernity intrudes (“That leaping man’s final act was the embodiment of the collective mind of San Francisco”) but on the whole deWitt keeps the period feel with great skill. The Sisters Brothers is not really an adventure story or a historical novel, however. It is a blackly comic fable about the usual wild west themes: emptiness, loneliness and the hollow lure of gold. At the end, in his mother’s house, Eli washes off all the dirt, and feels, he says, “precisely where he wanted to be”: without a cent, and planning, in a modest way, to open a general store.
Stella Tillyard is the author of ‘Tides of War’ (Chatto & Windus)