At moments, I can't believe how much time I spent slogging through David Liss' Whiskey Rebels. Yes, it is a book I spoke well of before, and I will again in a moment, but I do have to admit: any self-respecting English teacher would crinkle up her nose at. Characters are pretty wooden, for one thing, particularly the femme lede. And the dialog is cardboard.
So who should I--one who doesn't read that many novels anyway--give it the time of day? Two reasons, really: one obvious and the other that just came to me more lately, on which I am more tentative.
The obvious reason: Liss may not be so hot at character or dialog but he is superb at atmosphere, milieu. More precisely, two milieux: one, he does a bang-up job with the dynamic and unstable--okay, the near-chaotic--atmosphere of mercantile/commercial Philadelphia and New York, under the aegis of Alexander Hamilton with his grand vision of a great nation. It brought to mind an exchange with a lawyer I once worked for on a securities case. I remarked on how constraining I found some thread of securities law. You think modern securities law is bad, he said, just go inquire what they did in the old days before there was any securities law.
And the other is the frontier, specifically western Pennsylvania where we get to observe the parallel story: rough, raw and anarchic in its own way as new settlers try to claw a life out of the frontier. A delicious irony here--and I am not sure where Liss intended it--is how startling and sobering is Liss' frontier when measured against the vision of pastoral husbandry that so animated Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson certainly didn't want Hamilton's world, but did he grasp that the alternative might be this?
The common thread here is, of course, a theme of betrayal: the story of the revolutionary veterans who found themselves more or last cast adrift in a world they can manage only poorly if at all, and in which they feel themselves (perhaps accurately) used and abused by their freebooting "betters" back in the city. That in itself is of course not an original theme: I think it is quite the standard way of telling the revolutionary story. Liss may drag it on at a bit too much length but I'll have to grant that the message comes through convincingly even so.
The other is a point I'm kind of playing with. Specifically, Liss' "bad writing" (if it is not unfair to call it that)--you know, when you stop to think of it, it's a lot like "bad writing" that was fairly standard at the end of the 18th Century or the beginning of the 19th. His femme lede fancies herself a novelist. We never see any of her handiwork but you do come to speculate that if she had actually published a completed product, it might read a lot like this.