Western yarn humorously spun
Welcome to the wild and wooly West of Patrick deWitt’s imaginative and ebullient tall tale. With tongue firmly in cheek, deWitt, whose first novel, “Ablutions,’’ was a dark chronicle of addictions, revels in the hilarious life and times of two gunslingers, Eli and Charlie Sisters. Contracted by their boss, the mysterious Commodore, the brothers are ordered to hightail it out of 1851 Oregon City and head to California’s gold-rush camps. There, they’ll meet a dandy named Henry Morris (a man who “is not above biting’’) who will lead them to their intended target: prospector Hermann Kermit Warm. The brothers don’t really know why the Commodore wants Warm dead, or even whether he’s innocent (it wouldn’t surprise them if he was), but taking lives is their job, and they set out on the trail with two ramshackle horses.
It seems like a plot straight out of a spaghetti western, but from the start, deWitt has more than a few tricks in his saddlebag. Narrated in delicious deadpan by Eli, the kinder of the two brothers, (“Our blood is the same, we just use it differently,’’ Eli explains) the two men embark on a series of picaresque misadventures. They encounter a witch who curses their abode by stringing beads across the entrance; they skin a red-haired she-bear; and they tussle with bloodthirsty trappers. In one of the novel’s most hysterically strange episodes, Eli is introduced to the miracle of brushing his teeth with mint tooth polish, a habit so incredible, he spends a lot of the book trying to get everyone from his brother to a local floozy to engage in the practice with him. Of course along the way, the henchmen draw a bead on more than a few people, but the killing is very matter of factly done. “Let’s be sensible about it,’’ Charlie tells a hired hand he’s about to shoot.
When the brothers finally get to California and find their victim, all expectations are gleefully reversed. The brothers discover that nothing is really what it seems to be, that a career change could be in the works, and the plot peels away like onion skin, revealing startling secrets that lead to a transformative ending as unexpectedly moving as it is satisfying.
The prime pleasure of the book is in deWitt’s charismatic characters. Charlie, an alcoholic, seems to love bloodshed as much as he does liquor, cheerfully dispatching his victims with a gun, an ax, or whatever he has available. But while Charlie’s wedded to the job, Eli’s losing his appetite for killing and violence and painstakingly begins to struggle to find the moral compass that will set them both right. Tied to his brother since boyhood because of a fierce need to defend him, (the thought of someone causing harm to his brother makes Eli crazy enough to want to kill) he yearns to be ordinary, to open a shop, fall in love, and be a better man. Eli displays a poetic kind of sadness that makes you almost forget he’s a killer. He pines for various women who never pine back, and his ruminations on what makes life worth living are truly moving.
But as the brothers circle closer and closer to their victim, their conversations deepen and change. They begin to reveal more and more about their bond, their job, and their lives, and glinting like gold nuggets in their general conversation, are bits of their brutal past. Gradually, we begin to see the boys behind the men, the tragedy they both endured, and the way fate led them to their bloody occupation. Suddenly, instead of fearing these varmints, we both understand and feel for them.
DeWitt’s pages make this new frontier downright cinematic. The way west is full of muddy roads, scorching hot baths in flophouses, and hilariously befuddled men and worse-for-wear women just trying to get by. A motley crew of peripheral characters comes center stage for a brief cameo and then disappears, but they’re sketched so richly, you don’t forget them for a second, including a boy who wonders why he’s always getting punched in the head and a cheerful prospector beaming with pride over his coffee, which is nothing but a brew of dirt and water.
A meditation on family, love and what we do for work and why, “The Sisters Brothers’’ offers up its feast of delights in short punchy chapters, with writing that’s sometimes as laconic as a cowboy, and sometimes more like a hilarious comedy routine between two straight men. There’s even the surprise of two intermission chapters (in one, a little girl recounts a story of her three-legged dog) and a journal told in starred italics. Deliciously original and rhapsodically funny, this is one novel that ropes you in on page one, and isn’t about to ride off into the sunset any time soon.
Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Pictures of You.’’ She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.