Dark and funny 

Patrick deWitt's bloody, beautiful Old West

It never occurred to me how refreshing, how even life-changing, it might be to experience, as an adult, brushing your teeth for the first time. At least not until I read Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers.

Eli Sisters narrates the tale. He and his brother Charlie are used to hard living. They're henchmen on a mission for their boss, known only as the Commodore, to murder a man in a gold mining camp outside of Sacramento. It's the 1850s and the landscape is wild with horses and whiskey, prostitutes and outlaws; grimy teeth are the least of anyone's worries. But there's this great scene where Eli, the more enlightened of the brothers, has teeth extracted by a morose dentist who gives him a toothbrush and tooth powder. The minty freshness inspires Eli to buy more tooth powder during the brothers' violent journey. Eli describes the first experience:

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  • Patrick deWitt will be in Missoula for the Montana Festival of the Book, which runs Thu., Oct. 4 through Sat., Oct. 6. Go to the Humanities Montana website for the full schedule of events.

"Pulling myself up to the window, I spit the bloody water into the dirt and snow. My breath was cool and fine-smelling and I was greatly impressed with the tingling feeling this toothbrush gave me. I decided I would use it every day, and was tapping the tool on the bridge of my nose, thinking of nothing, or of several vague thing simultaneously, when I saw the bear lumber out of the woods..."

The man Eli and Charlie are out to kill is Hermann Kermit Warm, marked for death because of a curious invention he created. The book's picaresque style has the brothers meeting one strange character after another on their journey to find Warm, including a witch, a weeping man, a dandy named Henry Morris, savage trappers, prostitutes and hard-hearted inn keepers.

DeWitt's dialogue dabbles in circular conversation, the kind you find in Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass. At a restaurant in the inn where Eli and Charlie stay, Eli is a difficult and finicky customer, especially for an assassin wandering the Old West, which makes the conversation with the waiter all the more wonderfully absurd:

"I am weak with hunger," I told him. "But I am looking for something less filling than beer, beef and buttered spuds."

The waiter tapped his pencil on his pad. "You want to eat but you don't want to become full?"

"I want to be unhungry," I said.

"And what is the difference?"

"I want to eat, only I don't want to eat such heavy foods, don't you see?"

"We could give you a half portion, if you're not hungry," said the waiter.

"I've already told you I'm hungry. I'm famished. But I'm looking for something that isn't so filling, do you see?"

The next day, Eli returns to the restaurant for breakfast and the waiter tells him there's fresh pie:

"What kind of pie," I demanded. I thought, Don't let it be cherry.

"Cherry," said the boy.

My very blood wanted that cherry pie. Dabbing my face with the napkin, I told the lad I was fine, only tired.

"Pie or no pie," he asked.

"No pie!" I said.

Threaded through The Sisters Brothers are stories within stories. There's the journal of Henry Morris—the man who's supposed to be keeping an eye on the whereabouts of Warm—which the brothers discover in a hotel room. The journal reveals how that plan has been derailed. There are also odd David Lynchian "intermissions" in the book. Intermission I involves Eli meeting a girl who means to poison a dog, but who is plagued by strange dreams. Then there's Intermission II, which happens just before the book's end, where Charlie and Eil encounter the girl again in Godot-like fashion. These side stories are harbingers or universal truths or parables—it's hard to tell which, but they haunt the overall story and they haunt the brothers most of all.

In The Sisters Brothers there are no real heroes or villains like you'd see in other Old West tales. There's a magic realism that sometimes filters through the scenes, especially when we finally meet Warm and his incredible invention. DeWitt doesn't ever lose the story's edge, though. This is still the Old West and no one is safe. If it's not wild animals or shoot-outs, other ominous things lurk: the natural consequences of screwing with nature in the name of getting more gold. These are the scariest consequences of all.

The best part of this dark and funny story is that Eli is a somewhat reluctant outlaw—an assassin with a moral streak, an eye for beauty and appreciation for the little things in life, like tooth powder.

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