Granta £12.99

The Sisters Brothers, By Patrick deWitt

'Bring me the head of Kermit Warm'

Turning the final page of The Sisters Brothers, the second novel by the Canadian-born writer Patrick deWitt, the reader comes face-to-face with a mug shot of the author, an angular-jawed young man wearing a deadpan expression.

So this was him, then. He was the creator of this unsettling, compelling and deeply strange picaresque novel.

The Sisters Brothers is one of those books that they call "genre bending". The story, set against the backdrop of the 1850s Californian gold rush, goes something like this: two gun-toting brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, are instructed by their boss, the shadowy "Commodore", to hunt down and kill a chap by the unlikely name of Hermann Kermit Warm. They embark on a thrills-and-spills adventure across California, encountering a quasi-Beckettian "gallery of moribunds" on the way. The dénouement is at once serendipitous and circular.

Cowboys are richly represented in American fiction. The obvious writer to mention is Annie Proulx, author of (among many other things) Brokeback Mountain. It's safe to say that DeWitt is not very like her. Whereas Proulx looks for the particular, the nuts and bolts of life, DeWitt is concerned with driving narrative, violence and (above all) the fraternal relationship. Another obvious writer is Thomas McGuane; DeWitt is absolutely nothing like him. McGuane uses the genre to explore the everyday anxieties of American life, but DeWitt is concerned with the immutable characteristics of human nature. He's also not impartial to the odd flurry of magic realism.

As Eli and Charlie encounter one bizarre situation after another – a perpetually weeping man, a young girl intent on poisoning a dog, a gaggle of "painted whores, seven in number, each of them in frills and lace" – I find myself thinking of Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews. The madder vignettes (a mud-drinking tea party) even evoked shades of Alice in Wonderland.

But for all its wry playfulness, The Sisters Brothers is no comedy. The travails of the humane yet morally ambiguous protagonist in a hostile, lawless and unpredictable universe have echoes of Cormac McCarthy's speculative classic The Road. That book imagines a journey through a world in which civilisation has died; this book explores a world in which civilisation, as we know it, has not yet emerged. But both have much to say about the business of being human.

The narrative, written in the voice of Eli, captures perfectly the mixture of rivalry, admiration, love and disdain that makes up the lot of the younger brother. When he is bitten by a spider and wakes up with a horribly swollen face, his big brother says that he "looked like a half dog, and tossed a stick to see if I would chase it". Yet when Charlie suffers an accident, Eli cares for him devotedly. It is this poignant observation of brother-ness that makes me glad to have gone on this journey, even if I'm not sure exactly where I ended up.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on