• News
  • Columns
  • Interviews
  • BW Communities
  • Events
  • BW TV
  • Subscribe to Print
BW Businessworld

Wild West Redux

Photo Credit :

Do not assume that the title indicates a transgender novel. DeWitt brings back the American 'Wild West' popularised by the films of Sergio Leone and Louis L'Amour in his story of two mercenaries, Eli and Charlie Sisters, set in the gold-rush America of the 1850s. Charlie is the aggressive, amoral of the brothers who would not recognise scruples if they were served to him on a platter. Eli, a rather reluctant hired gun, is a more sensitive man, with a deep desire to settle down with a woman in a quiet town (it is a different issue that every woman he meets seems to be the destined mate).

Charlie and Eli have been commissioned by a man they know only as 'Commodore' to execute a man with the unlikely name of Hermann Kermit Warm, a prospector. The two head off toward California and San Francisco in search of Warm - and I never thought I would write a sentence like that - after the horrific loss of a horse: Eli's horse burns to death and he has nightmares of its last moments, described viscerally as 'his kicking, burning legs, his hot-popping eyeballs'. The two encounter gun-toting villains, greedy and grubby prospectors, impossibly petulant whores, and other dubious entertainment on the trail of Warm.

As the chase just begins to get Warm-er (sorry, couldn't resist that), Eli begins to have two problems. His teeth trouble him and his conscience, safely tucked away all these years, resurrects itself. The first problem is solved when a doctor -or a quack, one is never sure in the Wild West - gives him a magical mix: toothbrush and toothpowder. (The eminently ruthless Charlie, of course, robs the do-good doctor of his chloroform.) Running the risk of being called a dandy, Eli takes to brushing his teeth -arguably the finest comic moment in the novel. His second problem, that he has taken a dislike to all the killing and robbery, is a more persistent and unsolvable one, given his choice of lifestyle and profession.

Eventually they encounter Warm, and discover that he has invented a method to extract gold. Warm narrates his story and offers them a partnership in his project. The Sisters brothers agree, with Eli seeing this as a chance of changing his life - he is not sure of Charlie, though they have long conversations about it - for the better. The prospecting team also includes Morris, who had previously worked for the Commodore and now works with Warm. The chemicals Warm uses to extract gold turn out to be extremely poisonous and both Morris and Warm whose bodies have come into contact with it, die. The gold they do obtain is taken away by Indians. Charlie loses his shooting arm, which has also been poisoned by the chemical. Eli kills the Commodore, and the brothers then return to their mother.

DeWitt tries very hard to write a Western, but the sense of atmosphere is lacking here. There is for instance absolutely nothing we get about the arid landscapes though which the brothers journey (again, unfortunately for DeWitt, we recall the Leone films with Clint Eastwood). The gunfights are minimalist and deWitt's prose, racy in parts, potent in some visual imagery - the removal of a horse's eye with a spoon, or the account of what happens when Charlie shoots a man: he loses the back of his skull 'like a cap in the wind' - appeals with the humour. Eli's twinges of conscience appear farcical, unless it was intended to be so, with deWitt paying homage to the Western genre but also being self-mocking about his work. Charlie's tough-talking character also does not impress. The prospecting machine, the toothbrush-toothpaste and the intercom are the inventions presented as comic relief. There is greed, cruelty, innocence, evil in the madness for gold and the American frontier. The Sisters Brothers is entertaining, but it is doubtful if you would want to read it again.