Monday, September 8, 2008

The Whiskey Rebels I

I always giggle a bit when I see a book described as a "historical thriller." I love history, but I don't think of it as thrilling. I think the word thriller should be reserved for books that involve stolen diskettes, secret formulas, international conspiracies engineered by evil spies and viruses run amok. I recently tried to read one of those true thrillers, and couldn't get past the first page, which was a wildly flowery description of a butterfly fluttering at high altitude near a super-secret government research building in the mountains. And then the little butterfly crashes and is revealed to be a super-spy flying thingy. Government-employed brainiacs shriek their panic. Oh, wait. I did get past the first page. On the second page, a ruggedly handsome man climbs in the Alps with his wife. Tragedy ensues. I gleaned from the back cover blurb that she'd been unfaithful to him, so we readers are to be horrified but not overly sad when she plunges to a splattery death. I closed the book at that point. (Will it surprise anyone to learn that this same book is a major best-seller?)

Anyway, by robotic insect standards, The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is no thriller, although it's plenty exciting. It's set in Philadelphia and rural Pennsylvania in the 1780s and 90s, a period of history not visited often by novelists. Even romance novelists seem to shun this era. Historians these days love to write about the founding fathers, but they tend to cast the great men in bronze. How dull is that? I worked at Yankee magazine many years ago as an editor, and history, specifically Colonial-era history, was something the other editors knew quite a bit about. More than once I sat in a meeting and heard a fellow editor refer to John Hancock as a moneyed boob inexplicably blessed with a beautiful and shrewd wife, to John Adams as a moody and pompous ass, to George Washington as a bit of a heartthrob (his presidency and advancing middle age notwithstanding) because he was one of the best dancers in the country. I once heard an editor go on at length about how Paul Revere was really a psychotic lapdog invited to the revolution not because he was assumed to be the equal of the blue bloods around him (he was not) but because he had what the rich boys didn't. He had connections to the sort of people who could be counted on to harass, torture or kill troublesome royalists when the occasion arose. 

Now, that's history. I've never looked at that Copley painting of Revere in the same way since then. 

Fortunately for me, this book contains the grittier brand of post-colonial history, the one I prefer. The story does involve financial conspiracy. (And here's  my one complaint about that: I don't get it. I'm only about 200 pages into this book and I'm hoping my brain can sort it all out, the conspiracy part, and how financial ruin is imminent for the country. But so far, no go. I'm sure it's me.)

Never mind that, though. The story is told with two narrators. The first is a Ethan Saunders, a former soldier and spy for Washington, who was accused of treason in the waning days of the war and drummed out of the service, and who is drunk for much of the first few chapters. We meet him stealing a watch and contemplating his own imminent death at the hands of a man he has cuckolded. When this man confronts Saunders, beats him badly, and stands ready to kill him, Saunders does and says this:

I cleared my throat. "Dorland, I am sadly disappointed with the man I hve become. I am drunk not only at this moment but perpetually. I have had no steady source of income in half a decade, and I am incorrigibly addicted to gaming, so that the money I steal or borrow or, on those rare occasions, earn, is gone as soon as it is in my hands. My clothes are old and tattered and frequently pungent to the nose, and above all of that, I believe that during your attack I lost control of my bladder and pissed upon my person."

"You think this should make me spare you?" Dorland asked. "Do you think your pathetic condition will stay my hand?"

"No, I only wished to make note of the sort of man your wife admitted into her bed."

Okay, so likable, daring loser on the one hand who is rescued and sent off in search of a missing person. And on the other is Joan Maycott, the book's second narrator, a woman who is young when we meet her first. (Here, the book goes back in time, and many readers will miss this jump and misunderstand what's going on because of it.) Maycott is forceful and smart and knows what she wants. What she wants most is to be a writer, to write a uniquely American novel. This is a major narrative risk, and it's almost a red herring, but that it gives this woman reason to study all the things she's going to need to know to take part in this national banking crisis later on, many years and chapters later as she either aids or hinders Saunders when they finally meet. Of course, that's not for many, many chapters. In the meantime, we follow Maycott and her husband from New York City out to the hinterlands of western Pennsylvania, where they hope to do some farming. They are cheated and find themselves as near slave-labor on an unworkable plot of land. There are several chapters in which their lives are threatened again and again, not just by the elements but by the corrupt men who run their settlement. In this lawless settlement, certain men think nothing of raping a woman in her own home as a way of intimidating her husband. Joan Maycott is a wonderful character and readers have to stand by and watch her driven half mad by all she endures in these few years in this settlement. To avoid starvation, the Maycotts turn to making whiskey, like so many of their neighbors.

This part of the story is the most interesting, for my part, as it shows how people could be so cheated by the system, under what circumstances this territory was cleared for farmland, where that labor came from, and also why people made whiskey in the first place. Why would farmers turn grain into whiskey? Primarily because crops could not easily be transported to cities and sold, but booze could find a ready market anywhere. The better the booze, the higher the price.  When the volume and the price are high enough, a tax will follow. All of this is at the heart of the plot.

Above all this information hovers another set of ideas about how a revolution cannot create a country. In the wake of the war, crucial decisions had to be made to create and maintain an economy, a banking and monetary system. The story (so far) also highlights the bitter feud between Hamilton and Jefferson over federal versus state rights, and what a federal government has the right to do, and which friends of the important decision-makers will be allowed to line their own pockets.  You can draw a straight line from that feud to the Civil War and to presidential politics today.

Somewhat less interesting for me is Saunders' story (again, so far), although he continues to be witty and swaggering and troubled and drunk, and he meets with Hamilton, runs into Adams, and faces his own set of dangers and heartbreak, too. He is an easy companion to lead a reader through the part of the story that takes place near this new federal government. What I always want in an anti-hero is for him to have a chance at love and redemption. (I'm a sap, so sue me.) I have hope for him on the redemption front. Love? I'm not so sure. 

More on this when I've finished the book. Meantime, I like it a lot. It's smart and scary and entertaining almost all the time.

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