For some reason, I read a lot of serious books. Serious both in the sense that the subject matter seems heavy and in the sense that they are not funny. Sure, most books have glimmers of humour in them, and I have read a lot of funny books. But it is seldom that I read something so funny that I actually laugh about it, especially in public, where people give you looks that say "she's crazy," for daring to find humour while sitting alone. That's another story altogether, though. The thing, for me, about a really funny book is that it still needs to have a serious edge to it. I want to know that I'm laughing with the author and that they have taken their work seriously. The best example of this I have read in recent memory is Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers.
The Sisters Brothers is the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, actual wild west assassins. The novel is set during the California gold rush and Charlie and Eli have been sent from Oregon City to find a man on a claim in California and then kill him. And for the most part, the novel follows their journey south. Narrated by Eli, the younger of the brothers, the story is filled with his observations, memories, private angers, resentment toward his brother, and of course details about the actual journey. One of the nicest things about this perspective is that Eli isn't overly descriptive. He tells us what we need to know, but the rest is left up to our imagination. It's as if DeWitt is saying that we all have some idea of the wild west and frontier towns, so he isn't going to compete with that if he doesn't have to. The result is an uncluttered novel and a narrator who feels like a real person.
Anyway, the brothers may be hired guns, but Eli is much more reluctant about this than Charlie, who gets to be "lead man" on this job, which causes some hurt and jealousy between the two right from the get-go. There's also another problem that starts early on, and that's with their horses. Their previous horses were killed during their previous job – which we get snippets from throughout the novel, but which has not been written about, as far as I know – and now they've been stuck with new ones. These horses, Eli explains disdainfully, came with names, and they don't typically name their horses. Worse, Eli's horse is named Tub, which more or less describes it's agility; Charlie, of course, got the horse named Nimble.
The novel doesn't end with their arrival in California, though. Instead, they arrive to find their spotter – sent down ahead to watch the mark – has disappeared. They get ahold of his diary, though, and discover he and the mark, named Hermann Kermit Warm, have partnered up in a quest for gold. Warm, it seems, has developed a chemical solution that, when poured into a river, illuminates all the gold lying at the bottom. It's a limited-time illumination, but still, it allows you to simply wade around collecting gold instead of panning for it. It sounds too good to be true, but the brothers have a job to do, so off they go to find Warm and his gold. I'll leave you in suspense about the last quarter of the book, because that build-up is so good.
The Sisters Brothers is so good I could hardly put it down. The plot manages to be both diverging and unpredictable while remaining tight and coherent, and Eli's running commentary on the state of their horses and the people they encounter – and especially the women, since Eli seems to fall in love in every town – and the mounting craze for gold are so rich (and so funny) that you can't help but be swept up by the brothers and their squabbling conversations. This is one of the most inventive and entertaining books I've read in a long time, and I just can't decide if the magic is a one-off or if I'm crossing my fingers that DeWitt will write another one. Either way, this is going on my reread pile for sure.
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)