We live in an age where westerns aren’t as prevalent as they once were. All across entertainment mediums, the amount of stories set in the violent and dusty wild west has seemingly dwindled in comparison to that of its decades long heyday. While western stories were arguably most popular between the 1930s and 1960s, other genres have since surpassed them and there simply doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to as much demand these days. It’s a shame for those who love the genre, and has even impacted gaming, which provides a great outlet for such narratives yet has seen very few releases in the last decade plus, outside of Red Dead Redemption, Call of Juarez and GUN.
Back in 2011, a Canadian author named Patrick DeWitt published his second novel, The Sisters Brothers, to quite a bit of acclaim and won some noteworthy literary awards in the process, all of which are now advertised on the book’s beautifully unique cover. The story, which takes the form of a western yet is quite unlike most of the genre’s offerings, has since been made into a well received movie starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal. Said film released earlier this year, and while I want to see it as soon as possible, I didn’t want to do so without reading the book first. After all, the old adage says that the book is usually better than the movie, and it’s quite often correct.
As its title suggest, The Sisters Brothers is about two men who share the bond of siblinghood. The older brother, who’s presented as a tough bastard of a man who has no qualms about killing and doesn’t care much for feelings, is named Charlie, whereas the younger brother is named Eli. The latter man, who is both a bigger and more rotund person than his elder brother, has a heart and doesn’t exactly enjoy the job the two share. A job that provides them with orders to travel across the United States in search of men who have wronged a shadowy, rich and immoral man named the Commodore. You can guess what they’re usually asked to do to said targets.
After losing their trusted horses during their last job, which proved to be more dangerous than expected, Charlie and Eli Sisters (the latter of whom narrates this story) receive their next assignment. Said job, which Charlie has been appointed lead man on, is to travel from Oregon City to the outskirts of Sacramento, California, wherein the two will find a shady man named Hermann Kermit Warm. Together, they are to kill the wrongdoer and steal his secrets, before returning to the Commodore for their reward. Before this, however, they’ll first have to make their way to San Francisco, where a middle man named Morris has been stationed. Morris, you see, is another one of the Commodore’s employees, who’s been tasked with shadowing Mr. Warm.
Although this all sounds like a relatively regular western, The Sisters Brothers is not one. It may have the premise, the trappings and many of the elements of a classic or average western tale, but it’s a quirky narrative that strays from the traditional formula. As such, the book is more about the brothers and their relationship than anything else, acting as a character study set in an interpretation of 1851’s west. One in which strange occurrences, sibling battles, odd acquaintances and questionable morality all play key roles.
That said, it’s hard to really describe The Sisters Brothers to somebody who hasn’t read it. It’s a unique book, to say the least, and something that you won’t soon forget. That’s not to say that it’s a perfect masterpiece, though, because while I was very excited to get my hands on this novel I didn’t end up enjoying it as much as I had expected to, or hoped to. I did like it, though, and will probably revisit it years into the future, where I hope to like it even more upon a second reading.
There’s a lot to like about this book, especially its unique characters and the quirky occurrences that they encounter during their travels. Charlie and Eli are both complex characters who have appreciable depth, but only a couple of other characters end up being anywhere close to as deep. Then again, this is a story about two men who travel from one part of a country to another on horseback, meaning that they don’t stay in one area for all that long. Thus, their strongest relationships — outside of the one they share — end up being with their horses, with Charlie’s being a fit and strong creature named Nimble and Eli’s being a lesser and worrisome steed named Tub. The latter plays a pretty big role within because of his unique characteristics and his rider’s worries.
The writing and dialogue are two other things to look forward to, because there are few books like this, especially in terms of dialogue. This isn’t your grandfather’s western, and the dialogue proves it. It’s quirky, comical and unique. DeWitt’s writing is also pretty strong, although it’s stylized, likely because the narrator is an uneducated man, who just so happens to be a famous bounty hunter of sorts.
On the other side of things, The Sisters Brothers sometimes struggles with flow. Interesting and comical things happen, but they sometimes feel more like random occurrences and leave the book feeling disjointed. This is an issue with the first half of the novel, which can sometimes be a bit scatterbrained in its happenings, making one question how deep its primary mission will end up being. That said, things become more focused during the second half of the book.
Overall, this is a novel that some will love and others will probably just find to be okay, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt has provided a unique take on the western genre, which has spawned a movie that I hope to enjoy very much. I’m glad to have read it, and though I wish I would’ve found it to be a masterpiece like some have, I did not. Still, I enjoyed it a good amount and would recommend it to anyone with interest. There are few books like this out there.
**This review is based on a copy of the book that was provided to us.**