At first, nothing the brothers do or encounter is particularly unusual for this time and place: starving children in the woods, men driven insane by solitude, noisy whorehouses and dirty saloons … It’s all rendered irresistible by Eli Sisters, who narrates with a mixture of melancholy and thoughtfulness. He’s a reluctant murderer — he’d rather be a shopkeeper — but assassination is a job, the only one he’s ever had, and it keeps him close to his brother, which is nice. He describes their progress toward Sacramento with deadpan sincerity flecked with earnestness and despair … DeWitt catches Eli’s patter just right, the odd formality and naked candor of a man who’s tired of killing, who longs for ‘a reliable companion.’
If Eli is a little slow, he's also coming awake — compassion is unfolding in him, and he's considering the possibility of a new life. As the book follows the Sisters brothers on their quest to assassinate one Hermann Kermit Warm, it also tracks Eli's change. He starts out a brute who goes blank with murderous rage and soon becomes an equally brutish man pleased by the minty taste of the toothpowder a dentist gives him. Just how civilized will he become? … The Sisters Brothers frontier is more poetic than realistic but as easy to slip into as the old HBO series Deadwood. But where an onscreen western shows the setting, this book has few descriptions of landscape or buildings they visit. What gets described, instead, are bodily woes. Charlie's bad drunks and worse hangovers include lots of vomiting, Eli has injuries that bleed and swell, and the decline of Tub, Eli's horse, after getting swatted by a grizzly is, in the end, grisly.
These characters and their names, not completely Dickensian, or even Pynchonian, but not exactly commonplace either, are emblematic of Patrick DeWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers — not always serious, not always funny, sometimes derivative of old westerns, sometimes a parody of them … It’s...usually narrated in a gritty vernacular, and the version of 19th-century Western speech in The Sisters Brothers is surely gritty, as well as deadpan and often very comic. Eli Sisters tells the story in a loftily formal fashion, doggedly literal, vulgar and polite at turns, squeezing humor out of stating the obvious with flowery melodrama … Picaresques are by nature episodic, but this doesn’t justify a plot with so many anticlimaxes and dead ends. DeWitt seems to be fond of rescuing his characters from dire predicaments by means of convenient expedients, like gunmen falling out of trees, but is this parody or laziness?