The Whiskey Rebels opens in a dark alley. A man of dubious reputation has been set upon by enemies he may or may not deserve. Will he be humiliated — or worse, will he be killed by new enemies, and finally succumb to the fate he has courted since the days of his disgrace.
We are in David Liss country, familiar territory to readers of The Coffee Trader or A Conspiracy of Paper, and we’re happy to be here and eager for adventure.
What I just adore about David Liss is his ability to write fiction about things that I don’t understand, like commodities trading (Coffee Trader), the South Seas Bubble (A Conspiracy of Paper), deductive reasoning (C of P), and the Whiskey Rebellion and the Bank of America. As Liss’s characters undergo an education to the hard financial realities of life, the reader is also granted and education — and a perspective.
The Whiskey Rebels is jammed with nuggets of wisdom as one of Liss’s most sympathetic female characters, Joan Maycott, makes observations about her country and her times: “We walked the cobbled streets of the new imperial capital [New York City], the rivers filled with forests of merchant-ship masts, yet we were surrounded by the untouched submlimity of nature. There could be nothing more American.” She reads books on trade — and plans to write the American novel. As her husband-to-be observes in the first “Joan Maycott” section, “The American Novel, if it is to be honest, must be about money, not property. Money alone — base, unremarkable, corrupting money.” At times like this, The Whiskey Rebels touches on meta-novel status as Liss also gives up pointers on how to write through the actions of Joan Maycott, along with lessons on government and finance.
Liss’s other narrator, Ethan Saunders, is a flawed hero, so sunk in his own grief that he remains clueless about the suffering of others, including Leonides, Saunders’ young slave. As the novel progresses, it is easy to see why Leonides and Joan Maycott become important to each other even though we never witness a conversation between the two. That’s another Liss touch — the actions behind the scenes that are rendered subtly but honestly — no 11th hour revelations and deux ex machina here to cheat the reader.
The only thing that keeps me from giving the book 5 stars is the writer’s tendancy to end chapters with “If I only knew then about the problems of the future” -style cliffhangers. I personally find them unnecessary and am pulled along with the story for its own sake.
To lovers of history, fiction,and strong characters, I recommend this book. Enjoy!