"The Sisters Brothers" is as much as a historical fiction as Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained is an examination of the slave trade—which is to say, the book is an unvarnished and macabre take on that space between civilized and uncivilized lives in a specific period of American upheaval. One that is as much about its action-book narrative as it is an allegory about the emotional quality of a specific period of time. In the case of the gripping and wonderfully entertaining "The Sisters Brothers," the time is 1851, at the height of the California Gold Rush, when two brothers—notorious (and fictitious) killers Charlie and Eli Sisters—are sent from a mobster-like figure in Oregon City ("the Commodore") to murder a former associate. The reasons for the killing are blurry and unconvincing, which doesn't bother the older brother, an unblinking gunslinger, but tickles at the consciousness of the younger brother, Eli.
Like characters from a Tarantino film, the brothers commit despicable, bloody and violent acts, yet are wise-cracking, comically moody and deliciously likeable. An on-the-ground tale about two brutal, but thinking, men in 1851 Oregon, this is not the story about silk-suited gentleman; instead, it is about the underbelly of frontier life, greasy and mean men who bite, claw and shoot their ways toward expensive steak dinners and cigars, and are so low they will rob a prostitute, but dignified enough to leave a woman in distress a gold coin.
The chapters are short episodic reads, largely told from Eli's perspective, the younger and vastly more sensitive of the two, who in spite of their profession as notorious, ruthless hired killers, pines to settle down, perhaps open a simple merchant shop. Charlie, the older brother, however, is unrelenting in his whiskey-drinking, whoring and killing. There is no compunction, yet he is charismatic.
Likewise, the writing style is deceptively simple, yet profoundly poetic and compassionate. Chapters are short, seemingly easy reads, but packed with adventure, soul-searching and insights into the motivations of men (and yes, it is primarily a male-centric book, although a young girl who shows up in dream-like chapters and poisons her dog does her share to impugn the female sensibility as well).
When the two brothers finally arrive in San Francisco, on the trail of their target, they bumble through the boomtown and confusion of the city, and most blatantly witness greed—and its attendant success and failure—in full motion. The first person they encounter is a befuddled man who carries a chicken under his arm. Eli presses him for details about the city, and about why the man won't leave San Francisco, even after it has financially ruined him.
"I could leave here and return to my hometown," the man explains to Eli, "But I would not return as the person I was when I left, and I would not recognize anyone. And no one would recognize me."
That is a simple enough exchange, and a theme re-imagined throughout the story—about leaving home to find one's self, and only discovering that there is no turning back.
But what sets DeWitt's book in the upper echelons of novels is that he adds settings and descriptions that layer the metaphor with emotional tension. "Turning to watch the town," Dewitt writes, "(the man) petted his fowl. A single pistol shot was heard in the distance: hoof beats; a woman's scream, which turned to cackling laughter. 'A great, greedy heart!,' (the man) said, and then walked toward it, disappearing into it. Down the beach, a man with a whip stood away from a dead horse, staring out at the bay and the numberless masts. He had removed his hat. He was unsure, and I did not envy him."
That ability to take a simple exchange and turn it into a Joseph Conrad-worthy scene, shadowy with dark, greedy and confused ambitions, is what lends Dewitt's writing a heft and prowess.
The Sisters Brothers is a wonderful book. Historical fiction? Sure, for its on-the-ground scenes of frontier Oregon and gold rush California, and personalized stories. But it is so much more than that: an imminently relevant tale in its sweeping assessment of greed, kindness, and ambition; sentiments not owned by any one moment in time.