The short review: Vince and Jules from Pulp Fiction in an episode of Deadwood written by the Coen Brothers. If any of that appeals to you, get this immediately.
The longer review: Eli and Charlie Sisters are a pair of badass killers on the Oregon Trail in 1851. Their boss sends them to San Francisco to find one Herman Kermitt Warm and kill him. What results is weirdly funny, at times nastily violent and sometimes shot through with a weird sadness; as Eli himself puts it, the brothers’ story is “a tangle of grotesqueness and failure.”
Eli – somewhat overweight, somewhat slow – is the narrator, and he tells the tale in the weirdly lyrical way of a classic Coen dimwit. (Imagine, say, a portlier H.I. McDunnough waxing poetic about his one-eyed horse.) Eli is a jangle of contradictions. He is incongruously kind to women and animals; he is fascinated by the idea of brushing his teeth (a concept he is first exposed to en route to San Francisco); he has begun to seriously question his life choices; and yet he becomes terrifying at the drop of a hat: “My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its contents ceaseless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished.”
The first two-thirds or so of the novel covers the brothers’ picaresque journey from Oregon City to San Francisco. Along the way they meet whores, batshit crazy prospectors, hopelessly lost travelers and would-be outlaws. They kill a whole bunch of folks. The brothers frequently bicker, and Eli begins to realize that neither Charlie nor their employer take him very seriously, and this dawning awareness leads him, for the first time, to seriously consider a new line of work. In the novel’s final third, the brothers reach San Francisco and find their quarry but become tempted to break their contract and spare the man’s life, a decision that works out about as well as you’d expect.
I was really surprised by how much I liked this novel. I read it after Wil Wheaton gave it a glowing review as part of The Morning News Tournament of Books. I’m kind of a reverse lit snob in that I studiously avoid reading anything that smacks of “literary fiction”, but Wheaton’s enthusiasm fascinated me and I had to give it a go. I finished the book a day or so ago, and yet Eli has stuck with me in a way that narrators rarely do. I like to think that he’s still out there. I wish him well.
As a side note, I understand the John C. Reilly has bought the rights to the book and wants to play Eli. Can’t wait. (Although, given my druthers, I’d probably pick W. Earl Brown. I can see a lot of Big Dan in Eli.)