This book's drowsy and almost formal tone is misleading. Violence, anger, death have a matter-of-fact feel to them. There's a touch of the deadpan, à la "Deadwood," the HBO Shakespearean-inflected western series, only without the swearing. It masks the action, often violent, sometimes gruesome, that gallops through the book.
Eli Sisters, the narrator of the story, has a temper but it's mitigated by an off-kilter moral compass. Is it a product of the frontier days of 1851 Oregon and California during the gold rush? Eli and his brother, Charlie -- the Sisters brothers of the title -- make their living, such as it is, by being hit men for a blackhearted and ambitious 1850s version of a mob boss, "The Commodore." Charlie seems to relish his role, while Eli tries to find some of life's important lessons as he performs his duties.
The Commodore has sent the brothers down to California to kill a gold prospector who has stolen something from him. Theirs not to reason why, they set out from Oregon City on mismatched horses, Charlie's a normal one and Eli's a swaybacked, lump of a horse who may be Virgil to Eli's Dante.
The brothers wield an impersonal scythe of death as they journey to San Francisco to meet The Commodore's investigator, Morris, who will lead them to Hermann Kermit Warm (what a fine Muppet name or maybe it's a singing group from the 60s), the prospector.
Although this book was shortlisted for the British Man Booker prize, a reader will probably determine within the first ten pages if the tone and pacing is attractive or irritating, thus avidly finishing the book or tossing it away with a puzzled frown. Is the humor too black? Is the moral quest too ambiguous? Is Eli a slippery character or a product of his times and genetics? Who is to blame for the atrocities? Is "That's life!" the moral of the story?
What a difficult task DeWitt set before himself to carry the book's tone and feel through to the end. I think he was successful. The book's dark humor was perversely engaging. The brothers' task, a mutated knight's quest, begs a conclusion, and that's the hook that carries the reader along. The "River of Light" at the end lived up to its name in that it illuminated both the physical and the metaphysical. Or you could just enjoy it as a eccentric adventure story.
This will be on my list of recommended books at the end of the year.
Here's a taste of DeWitt's prose:
I do not like to argue and especially not with Charlie, who can be uncommonly cruel with his tongue. Later that night I could hear him exchanging words in the road with a group of men, and I listened to make sure he was not in danger, and he was not -- the men asked him his name and he told them and they left him alone.
Charlie and I had an unspoken agreement not to throw ourselves into speedy travel just after a meal. There were many hardships to our type of life and we took these small comforts as they came; I found they added up to something decent enough to carry on.
'He describes his inaction and cowardice as laziness.' Charlie said.
'And with five men dead,' I said, 'he describes our overtaking his riches as easy.'
'He has a describing problem,' said Charlie.
There was a warm wind pushing down through the valley and off the surface of the water; it kissed my face and caused my hair to dance over my eyes. This moment, this one position in time, was the happiest I will ever be as long as I am living. I have since felt it was too happy, that men are not meant to have access to this kind of satisfaction…