The Whiskey Rebels
© 2008 David Liss
“You have my word as a gentleman.”
“You are no gentleman!”
“Then you have my word as a scoundrel, which, I know, opens up a rather confusing paradox that I have neither the time nor inclination to disentangle.”
The Whiskey Rebels is a story of love, rage, and deceit set during the frontier days of the American republic. Two people, an amiable but disgraced spy and a border widow who was an aspiring author until she had to settle for instigating another revolution, are drawn into collusion and conflict by a sinister scheme. Although the title brings to mind the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, David Liss’ first foray into American historical fiction is not simultaneously his first war novel. Whiskey Rebels is instead a mystery-business thriller in the vein of The Coffee Trader and A Conspiracy of Paper: at its heart is a complicated banking scheme one must either be a financier or an author to cook up, centering on the nascent Bank of America.
Rebels is unusual in having a split narrative, as Joan Maycott and Ethan Saunders take turns in telling their own individual stories that will converge in time amid frantic chases and gunfire. Joan is a young society woman who is too clever and audacious for her era; after she and her husband were tricked into forfeiting his backpay as a Continental soldier to take up farming on the frontier (wild west Pennsylvania), their lives were destroyed by greedy speculators despite having turned lead into gold through the whiskey trade. Her plight, which is set several years before Saunders’, works forward to intersect with his back in Philadelphia, during the nation’s first financial crisis. Saunders is introduced, tellingly, at a bar where he is about to fight over a woman. It is another woman who will get him into real trouble, though; his old fiance, who he left after he was accused of being a traitor. She’s married in the years since they parted ways, and now her husband is missing and her children’s lives are threatened. Would he be so kind as to help?
Saunders isn’t exactly a knight in shining armor, but he is the sentimental sort. He may dote on the bottle like it was mother’s milk and lie with the ease of breathing, but there is one woman he loves and one cause for which he will be utterly true: hers. Finding her wayward husband means attracting the attention of many nasty men who do not want a disgraced drunk roaming through their business, and who have a lot of money to lose if he doesn’t let sleeping dogs lie. Fortunately, there are conspiracies within conspiracies here, and some parties see some use in steering Saunders to act in their interest to undermine the others. This is not a book for shoring up one’s faith in human nature, as all of the tale’s characters are busy lying to one another as they manipulate the others into doing their bidding, sometimes pursuing mutual goals. It’s a you-lie-to-me, I-lie-to-you game that ends up in stabbings, hangings, shootings, fires, and one grenade. The temporal split works to the novel’s advantage, as the main plot is so exhaustively entangled that it takes five hundred pages for firearms and fisticuffs to break out. The reader is allowed to work his way into the thick of things, given rest periods to read about Joan’s misfortunes in the wilderness — fire, Indian raids, and fighting violent revenuers. Eventually her plight will drive her back to Philadelphia for revenge, only now she’s no society woman whose idea of mischief is inviting men to take her on unsupervised walks. She’s been hardened by the west, determined to destroy a cabal and its government that has become an enemy of its people.
Hell has no fury as a woman scorned, but where is the road from the frontier to Philadelphia and Alexander Hamilton’s new bank? The capital for said bank was to be raised with a heavy excise on whiskey, a tax heavy enough to drive frontier settlers who were just getting by into ruin. That will drive Joan in part, but there are other factors and malfactors involved, and by and by wretched connections to Hamilton’s treasury department are discovered. Liss handles the intersection of our two characters exceptionally well, as Joan appears as a dinner party attendee in Ethan’s story, becoming increasingly important in his own tale as well as hers. Saunders and Joan will emerge to have a mutual enemy, but conflicting goals; while Saunder’s efforts put him in tense cahoots with Hamilton, attempting to prevent the government’s new financial plan from being wrecked, Joan sees Hamilton as the Archfiend himself. The merge makes the reader root for two people simultaneously who will act at cross purposes; here we have a novel whose most sympathetic characters are the other’s antagonist. Unfortunately after they meet the thicket of lies and confabulations becomes even denser. Mercifully, the jibber-jabber about stockjobbing and buying six-percents so the four-percents will float is tempered by an amiable and hilarious lead. Sure, the noble but charming rogue is something of a trope at this point, but even when he’s deep in his cups and acting heinously, the reader is beguiled into supporting him all the same. The authorship itself is playful, the fourth wall threadbare — at one point Saunders apologizes to the reader for introducing so many women as the most beautiful in the world, but he can’t help it. He is astonished to run into so many femme fatales, himself — it’s not his fault!
Although parts of The Whiskey Rebels were strained, it has immense appeal in having Hamilton as a side character, with Washington and Jefferson in bits parts as well. The other characters are a mix of historical and fictional, with the mutual enemy — the author of all this misery and drama — being a factual speculator. Rebel’s’ exhausting plot twists are eased with humor; it wasn’t the story I expected to read, but was well-done and entertaining all the same.