Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Sisters Brothers is just as good as you may-or may not-have heard

Is that not a totally rad cover?
A while ago, Wil Wheaton posted about a tournament-style book competition where he was one of the judges. He had to read two books and choose which one he preferred. I had never heard of The Sisters Brothers, but his review of the book was so enthusiastic that I had to give it a shot. You can read his post about the contest here, which has a link to the actual review.

I don't normally read books based on reviews, even reviews from actors and/or writers I admire, but I just happened to be between two novels with no definite plans for what to read next, and Wil Wheaton's review was so intriguing that I decided to put a request in for it at my local library. A week or two later, I had it in my hands and I started giving it a read.

While we're on the subject of celebrity endorsements, I was about halfway through the novel when my internet crush Kate Beaton tweeted that she had just finished it and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I felt validated in my choice of reading material.

While nominally a Western based on its setting, The Sisters Brothers contains no white-hatted sheriffs or nameless strangers who blow into town to take on a band of rowdy outlaws. Instead, it has its share of dust, whores, grit, prospectors, dirt, and booze. While a Gary Cooper film may be a pearl-handled Colt that will never be drawn in anger, and a Clint Eastwood film may be a worn and reliable Peacemaker that is almost a part of its wielders body, The Sisters Brothers would be a stolen pistol that was chosen because it was close at hand and could get the job done.

The novel tells the story of two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters. They work for a rather disreputable man known as the Commodore, and they make no secret of the fact that the jobs they do frequently end in people dying. Their reputation precedes them wherever they go, and people know not to mess with the Sisters Brothers. Their current job sees them traveling to California, where one of the Commodore's agents has been observing a man that the Sisters Brothers should see to. Eli and Charlie set off, but their previous job did not sit well with Eli, and he starts to wonder why they do what they do.

The novel is not so much about the job they are doing as the things that happen to them along the way, and the way those events reveal aspects of the brothers' personalities and relationship. Eli, the narrator, may not be a good man, but he does not like unnecessary violence and he has a soft spot for animals. Since he lost his horse on the previous job, he gets a new one that is a pathetic creature named Tub. Eli's care for the sad beast annoys his brother Charlie, who is a vicious man who has no qualms about the jobs he is asked to do. Charlie dreams of one day being the big man and calling the shots, and in the meantime he gets his kicks by bossing Eli around.

Both of the Sisters Brothers are good at killing and make no apologies for it. Eli can turn his mind off when the time comes to kill, though he does not like losing control. Charlie, on the other hand, seems to delight in showing off his skills with a gun. The brothers trust each other and rely on each other, as they have since they were children. The story of how Eli got his freckles will stay with you well after you finish the novel.

When I was reading the first half of the novel, I was anxious for Charlie and Eli to get to San Francisco, that lawless town that turns even decent people into gold-obsessed animals. But like I said earlier, the California job is not the focus of the novel, and the book's casual pace helps to ground the characters and the setting. You get to know the Sisters Brothers the way you get to know real people, by seeing them react to situations that are alternately everyday and outlandish.

I recommend The Sisters Brothers to anyone who likes their Westerns gritty and their characters morally ambiguous, and the next time Wil Wheaton or Kate Beaton recommend a novel, I may just have to put in another book request at the library.


  1. When I saw that your link led to Youtube, I was thinking, boy, I hope that's the Aquabats song! Oh, it is! Awesome.