The Sisters Brothers
Speaking as someone who won’t read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove because it’s a Western, won’t see the evidently delicious Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit – I don’t like Westerns! – I didn’t expect to enjoy The Sisters Brothers. I was wrong. This is a stunning book, a darkly comic Western noir slyly and elegantly written in blood and longing.
It’s the picaresque tale of Charlie and Eli Sisters, brother assassins, making their way to California Gold Rush country to murder their latest assignment. Charlie has less hesitation in killing people than most of us do in knocking off that trout we just reeled in. The reflexively loyal Eli has issues with the work, but someone needs to watch Charlie’s back. Plus, as Eli confesses, the two “have an aptitude for killing.” Eli’s yearning for nonlethal connection with others, whether with a horse, a woman, or just the non-psychopathic population in general, is likeable and winning, even as he goes along by default with Charlie’s mayhem. Along the way, they meet a dentist (who introduces Eli to the marvelous new practice of tooth brushing), other equally vicious (but not as talented) outlaws, prostitutes, and a witch.
The Sisters Brothers left me thinking about its themes of goodness, loyalty, greed, capitalism, and testosterone, but also about what makes a book literary, as this one has been rightly labeled. It’s an easy read – it even boasts short chapters. So is it the depth of its characters? Its meaningful insights into life? The sparkle of the writing or the plot’s simple brilliance? I don’t know the answer, but I know it when I read it, and The Sisters Brothers is classic literature. Even if it is a Western.