It’s the California Gold Rush circa 1851 and Patrick DeWitt has two brothers (Eli and Charlie Sisters) podnering up to make mayhem in the old West. Don’t mess with the Sisters (brothers). It’s a funny tale full of sudden and (at least initially) unexpected violence. The humor masks an existential sadness that becomes poignant in the end. The brother team is employed by a shadowy figure known as the Commodore (a name never explained – but some names need no explanation). The Commodore wants revenge on a man he claims has stolen from him and he has dispatched his advance man Henry Morris to locate the culprit, Hermann Kermit Warm.
Narrated by Eli, they begin their journey to Sacramento where Morris has advised the Commodore that Warm is now located. A large man, Eli loves his brother (probably more than his brother loves him), has a soft spot for injured animals, despairs of the life he is leading (he’s not cut out for murder, though he has a sometimes violent temper) and looks toward the day when he can become a shopkeeper, rather than an assassin for hire. For his part, Charlie seems perfectly fit for the life he’s leading – a steely eyed killer with nary a trace of human kindness, except some tough love for his brother.
When Charlie is in need of an axe to extricate Eli from a cabin they have crashed in (they believe the door has been cursed) he returns with the implement. Eli notices that Charlie’s hand is somewhat scraped up and asks him about it.
‘The men were hesitant to loan me their equipment. Well, they’ll not need the ax, now.’
Eli is the philosophical sort (though his brother is not impressed with his intellect), and there’s time for easy ruminating in the old West. Lots of time was spent riding on horseback to their destination many miles away. Riding from Oregon to Sacramento, they ride beside a stream, and Eli thinks about the beauty of the land and the possibility of great reward hidden by this beauty. Yet he’s wary of the allure.
…the thought that the earth itself was taking care of you, was in favor of you. This perhaps was what lay at the very root of the hysteria surrounding what came to be known as the Gold Rush: Men desiring a feeling of Fortune; the unlucky masses hoping to skin or borrow the luck of others or the luck of a destination. A seductive notion, and one I thought to be wary of. To me, luck was something you either earned or invented through strength of character. You had to come by it honestly; you could not trick or bluff your way into it.
Eli is shy around women, his experience limited too one-nighters of the paid variety. Visiting Mayfield’s saloon (and cat house) with Charlie, the women sitting on his lap, he becomes “engorged.”
I recall standing to correct and retuck the bloated appendage and noticing that both my brother and Mayfield were likewise engorged. Just your everyday grouping of civilized gentlemen, sitting in a round robin to discuss the events of the day with quivering erections.
How’s that for an image? Half way through this novel I commented to a friend that I was enjoying this immensely; that it put me in mind of Willy Vlautin, not only the laconic narrative voice, but the brotherly relationship. Right about that time (the second half) the novel changed a bit, and lost some of its charm. When found, the story of Hermann Kermit Warm and his invention (which is what the Commodore was really after) didn’t hold me as much as the quest to actually find Warm. Nevertheless, I had a blast riding along with Eli. DeWitt’s tale has several things that appeal to me in novels, and that I appreciate: Short chapters (lots of them, but short). A limited supply of characters. I have a fear of overlooking a character and as each is introduced, I feel the need to remember the circumstances and the names. Here there are really only four for the story proper, with another few looming ones.
The reversal (or maybe I should say the corrective) of the relationship between the brothers comes as part of the very satisfying conclusion. And who says you can’t go home again?