The Sisters Brothers reads like a rampage. It’s compulsively readable in the way the best potboilers are; I tore through it in no time at all. It tells the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two vicious gunslingers known for their effectiveness and ruthlessness. But en route to San Francisco to locate Herman Kermit Warm (their latest target), Eli starts to think about how he wants a different life. The bloody end of their last job seems to have unmoored him. “It came over me all at once then: I was not an efficient killer. I was not and had never been and would never be. Charlie had been able to make use of my temper was all; he had manipulated me, exploited my personality, just as a man prods a rooster”
Well, Eli is, in fact, a killer. And a good one. But it is true that his life has been unduly influenced by his brother’s ambitions, and as he begins to move toward creating his own life everything the brothers have built begins to unravel. It’s a suspenseful, violent tale, but one with emotional resonance. Eli’s dreams of settling down with a wife and maybe working as a clerk in a shirt store may sound ridiculous to his brother, but it comes from a sweet and genuine need in his heart: to live a normal life and be loved.
There’s a great deal of literary heft to be found too, though it is easy to overlook as you race through the pages. There’s a good reason that The Sisters Brothers was a finalist for the Mann Booker Prize last year. I think I’ll have to read it again sometime to piece together my thoughts on the crying man who keeps turning up, the significance of the ‘curse’ Eli believes has been placed on him, and other such motifs. But the observations I did pick up on were measured and pin-sharp. Setting the novel in San Francisco during the gold rush was a nice touch; it was the perfect setting to showcase the ruins that come from avarice and corruption. The city is portrayed as a foundation of hope and, all too frequently, the arbiter of staggering despair. As in Cormac McCarthy, there are also religious flourishes here and there: “I felt San Francisco standing behind me but I never looked back and I thought, I did not enjoy my time here.”
But there’s a burning hope for the future, too, and that is where The Sisters Brothers really shines for me. “Though I had never before pondered the notion of humanity, or whether I was happy or unhappy to be human, I now felt a sense of pride at the human mind, its curiosity and perseverance.” That this hope is seldom realized, that most dreams and hopes are created only to be cruelly murdered, is a bleak message. But when the message comes in the form of an enjoyable potboiler, it’s hard to feel too bad about it.