‘The Restraint of Cowboys, anyone?’ – The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

sbmtipdwSome books are an unadulterated pleasure from start to finish. The Sisters Brothers is one such book. Although I got a tremendous kick out of Patrick deWitt’s debut, Ablutions, I did worry that he would turn out to be a one-trick pony of the ‘I appear to only be able to write about thinly disguised versions of myself’ school. The Sisters Brothers heartily demonstrates that not only is this vibrantly not the case, but that Patrick deWitt is a name we should all hoist much further up the ‘writers we tend to get extremely giddy about’ list.

The eponymous brothers, Eli and Charlie, natives of Oregon c.1850, are on their way to kill one Herman Kermit Warm at the behest of their employer, known only as the Commodore. From the outset there is minor dischord between the brothers as a result of the Commodore elevating one (Charlie) over the other, and this self-same disharmony hilariously peppers the brothers’ journey from Oregon through California to San Francisco. Along the way, Eli is bitten by a spider hiding in his boot, suffers a terrible toothache and gives his heart not once but twice to unlikely ladies. Charlie, an altogether more hot-headed proposition, is frequently given to drunkenness, flying off the handle and brandy sickness, when he isn’t shooting first and asking questions later. The brothers’ quarry is a peculiar inventor whose patent for a mixture that illuminates gold as it hides away in quickly flowing rivers has attracted the Commodore’s attention – but the invention is of such an astounding quality and magnitude that the brothers start to question their job and indeed their lives up to that point.

The first thing to say about The Sisters Brothers is that it is quietly hilarious. I know people say books are hilarious when they’re not (books rarely have you struggling to conceal your mirth, rarely have you on the floor clutching your sides, tears streaming down your face) – books in fact tend more to the ‘dryly amusing’ – but The Sisters Brothers is about as amusing as a book can get, in my experience (if you’ve read and been amused by Don Quixote, you will read and be amused by The Sisters Brothers). I’ll give you a couple of examples. Eli has just been telling Charlie that he likes the slovenly receptionist of the hotel they’d been staying in and Charlie is cocking a snook to the extent that Eli tells him:

‘You are only jealous because you don’t have a girl.’

‘Is that hard scrubber your girl? My congratulations. It’s a shame we couldn’t take her to mother. She would be so glad to meet the delicate flower.’

‘If it’s a question of talking with a fool or not at all, I will choose the second.’

‘Spitting into the dirt, wiping her nose on her sleeve. A very special lady indeed.’

‘Not talking at all,’ I said and left him to gather his things.

Later, the two of them are talking about Eli’s decrepit horse Tub, pondering his eventual fate:

I said, ‘I should think some farmer would be happy to pay for Tub’s services. He has a few good years left.’

‘I wouldn’t get his hopes up.’ He turned to Tub and said, ‘Stew meat? Or pretty pasture, with the farmer’s soft-bottomed daughter?’ To me he whispered, ‘Stew meat.’

There is more to The Sisters Brothers than just the odd chuckle, however. The writing here is pretty damn good, strong and sturdy stuff. Take the following, wherein he describes the mood that comes on Eli right before a killing:

My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished.

The best thing about the book, though, is that it’s a romp, a hugely enjoyable read, one of those books that harks back to the fleshy pleasures of reading that snagged us all when we were kids. When Eli and Charlie eventually find their river of light (wherein ‘the river bottom was illuminated completely so that every pebble and mossy rock was visible’), their own pleasure is much akin to ours:

The moments that passed while we were worked the river were neither brief nor long, were in fact somehow removed from the very restriction or notion of time – we were outside of time, is how it felt to me; our experience was so uncommon we were elevated to a place where such concerns as minutes and seconds were not only irrelevant but did not exist.

The thought that ‘this experience was born of one man’s unique mind’ is what makes the thing all the more enjoyable and remarkable. I for one cannot wait to see what he gets up to and where he takes us next.

Any Cop?: Like an outlaw version of Magnus Mill’s Restraint of Beasts (Restraint of Cowboys, anyone?) or True Grit by way of Don Quixote, The Sisters Brothers is a frequently hilarious, moving, occasionally profound western that entertains, provokes and thrills. Heartily, heartily recommended.


Peter Wild



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