Published on July 10th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant


The Sisters Brothers

Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers takes place during the Gold rush, where two brothers, infamous for their killing skills, are sent to dispose of a man who ripped off their boss.  However, when they reach California, they find themselves at odds with their mission.

When I think of most literary westerns, a picture comes to mind of my grandfather and some old Louis L’Amour books — in other words, not something I’d be terribly interested in reading.  I’m guessing a lot of people in the 21st century have similar misgivings, but The Sisters Brothers falls more in line with a modern western.  They are less of a pulpy paperback, and more of a literate, poetic take on the sometimes picturesque and simple, sometimes complicated and violent way of life in the old West.  A good touch point for most people would be from the film world, with movies like The Coen Brother’s True Grit (which is closer to the original novel than the John Wayne version).

In all honesty, it was my wife who first read The Sisters Brothers, and though she’s not the sort I’d peg as one who would read a western, she liked it a lot, which raised my curiosity.  There are a few notches on the handle of this literary pistol; The Sisters Brothers has won Governor General’s Literary Award and other accolades.

It starts out as a road movie, as brothers Charlie and Eli make their way towards their target — and their destiny.  One brother is an alcoholic stone cold killer, while the other is more sensitive, but follows his brother because it’s all he’s ever known.  There are moments of grit, and moments of complex introspection of the most human sort.

These are some great characters, who reminded me a bit of the old tyme dysfunctional country singing brothers Charlie and Ira Louvin, and their relationship (as detailed in the excellent book ‘Satan is Real’).  On a more contemporary note, these assassin brothers also made me think of Vince and Jules, the two philosophizing hit men from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

From a writing standpoint, it took a few pages to get used to the prose, but I was getting hints of Deadwood in the dialogue, or better yet, the prose of Cormac McCarthy.  It’s easy to draw parallels between McCarthy’s amazing book The Road, which has a similar vibe (if not a lot more depressing), especially while Charlie and Eli are on the road to San Francisco.

Some have criticized the book for being violent, which it is, but I didn’t find it to be anything over-the-top.  In fact, this may be another hold over from a time of “nicer” westerns.  The Sisters Brothers is an excellent work, and whether you normally read westerns or not, I’d advise checking this one out.  It’s a quick, but smart read.


About the Author

is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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