There’s not enough humor in literature these days, and Patrick DeWitt seems at the outset of The Sisters Brothers to be trying to rectify that situation all on his own. Start with the title.

Eli and Charley are the brothers named sisters, and they work for a mysterious tycoon called the Commodore. What they do is kill and hurt people. This may not seem such a humorous enterprise, but the way DeWitt presents their picaresque wanderings makes it all seem like a good-natured romp. At least at first. Younger Brother Eli is our narrator, a basically gentle soul with an air of the philosophical about him who’s trying to keep up with his hard-hearted brother who would just as soon plug you as not if it’s necessary to accomplish what the Commodore wants.

On their way from Oregon City to San Francisco to carry out the latest mission, Charley says of their intended victim “…he will be waiting for us at a hotel. . . [Morris] will point Warm out and we will be on our way. San Francisco is a good place to kill someone, I have heard. When they are not busily burning the entire town down, they are distracted by its endless rebuilding.”

The time is the gold rush, and I won’t describe the many adventures Eli and Charley run into nor the complications that arise in the killing of Mr. Warm. Suffice it to say that the book gets more serious as it goes on. There’s an environmental/pollution allegory involved, and both characters undergo profound changes of heart and mind before the action concludes.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable journey, and not without some heartfelt moments and some philosophical/intellectual challenges. Four stars it is for me, and I’ll stand by every one.

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