“The Sisters Brothers”

by Patrick DeWitt

Central Question: Why would we root for the gunslinging outlaws?
Number of intermissions in novel: two; Number of pages: 328; Notable characters: The Commodore, Hermann Kermit Warm, Tub and Nimble, Morris, Mother; Other famous outlaw brothers: Frank and Jesse James; Grat, Bill, Bob, and Emmett Dalton; Famous Elis: Manning, Whitney; Famous Charlies: Daniels, Sheen, Chaplin; Representative sentence: “I found myself offended at his tone and told him, ‘My name is Eli Sisters, you son of a whore, and I will kill you dead where you stand if you don’t hurry up and serve me what I asked for.’”

Rarely have we seen such a neurotic antihero in a revisionist western as Eli Sisters of The Sisters Brothers. Encumbered less by loyalty than by his own wanting self-worth, Eli suffers from loneliness, longing for the companionship of a woman. Laboring in the shadow of his irreproachably masculine outlaw brother, Charlie, he confesses to rarely having known a woman longer than a night; even with prostitutes, he favors discourse over intercourse. At one point Eli admits, “I saw my bulky person in the windows of the passing storefronts and wondered, When will that man there find himself to be loved?”

Eli does not share his brother’s love for whiskey and whorehouses. He is fastidious about his health. He is worried about his weight and cares achingly for his horse. After a dentist gives him tooth powder and a toothbrush, a new invention at the time, he shows it to a woman he is trying to impress; excitedly, she retrieves her toothbrush so that they can brush their teeth together. “So it was that we stood side by side at the wash basin,” he reflects, “our mouths filling with foam, smiling as we worked.”

The Sisters Brothers is not the typical western, which (with the possible exceptions of Little Big Man and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) rarely makes use of humor as a convention, particularly a humor so absurd. But Patrick deWitt has found a way to isolate and quarantine the conventions of the traditional revisionist western, permitting himself a degree of risk-taking that leaves the reader no less aware of his fearlessness. Eli’s neuroticism is both humorous and sad; we’re not sure whether we should laugh at him or fear him.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Brandon Hobson

Brandon Hobson’s fiction has appeared in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, as well as in NOON, Web Conjunctions, Puerto del Sol, New York Tyrant, and elsewhere. He recently completed a novel.

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