John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry speaks the American language of the tall tale: Its braggadocio is disguised as candor, and the novel mutes any trace of absurdity with its sharp plot, its tendency to whisper secrets rather than dwell on them, and its preference for scene overexposition. Set on the American frontier in the mid-1880s, Whiskey When We’re Dry presents itself as the confessions of one Jessilyn Harney, then an orphaned, teenaged girl who embarks from her ruined family farmstead to track (and reunite with) her outlaw brother Noah.
Jess narrates the novel in her own gruff idiom, a blend of frontier gumption and the brusque wisdom of her Pa, a disgraced Union sniper who refused to betray much about his past. Rather than a cacophony of dialect, though, Jess speaks with a ballad’s cadence and a con man’s lethal intent. Her voice plays a variation of the hollow, aggressive masculinity of the American West and the refrains of Manifest Destiny. In doing so, her frontier journeys illustrate how vacant the promises of the West are: Its rewards are reserved for those with political and economic power, the ones who become the official authors of history.
But circumstances nonetheless provide Jess with frequent occasion to study and emulate the self-important posturing of settler men. Her mother died in childbirth, so Jess spent her formative years orbiting the inevitable clashes between her Pa and Noah—Oedipal disputes that devolved into fistfights, drove Noah from the homestead, and launched his career as a notorious outlaw. After her Pa is killed, possibly in an ambush by other ranchers, Jess realizes that she cannot manage their remaining cattle by her lonesome—especially when the only conventional recourses permitted to a teen girl on the frontier were marriage or sex work. But she knows that conventions exist to be flouted, a lesson she learned when her Pa took her to a trick shooter’s performance. In the trick shooter, Jess has found an alternative to frontier womanhood:
Straight-Eye Susan wasn’t no man, of course. She was a woman some years past marrying age wearing a white dress with flowers embroidered on it and a showman’s hat and a golden revolver to match the golden action of her Winchester repeater. The men in the crowd called at her and said things they might only say to a whore, and she picked these men from the audience and dared them to stand still while she shot matches from their teeth and casings from their hats. Not a taunt rose from the crowd after that.
After her Pa’s death, a cruel winter, and troubles maintaining their herd of cattle, Jess resolves to follow Straight-Eye Susan’s model, but with a twist. “The idea had been coming to me for weeks,” she admits. “I just then set about doing it.” She hacks her hair, outfits herself in some of Noah’s too-tight boyhood clothes, and sets out with her Pa’s pistol and rifle—a fateful decision that takes her through ambushes, trick-shooting contests in which she alternately fails and wins, a stint serving in the territorial governor’s private guard, and an ultimate reunion with Noah (and his gang of outlaws).
If the narrator were different, or if the novel were in third person, Larison might not have managed the feat of constructing Jess’s frontier, let alone maintaining the novel’s breathless pace. In his introduction to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, collected in The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders offers a possible explanation for how a writer like Larison might pull this off: “This first-person voice turned out to be one of the most natural and poetic literary voices ever devised, a voice still startling in its ability to bring the physical world … off the page and into our heads.” Saunders makes the geography of Huckleberry Finn seem much lusher than it is, and the rhythm of Larison’s prose has a similar effect. Here, for instance, is Jess describing the approach to a valley while she, Noah, and their fellow outlaws are fleeing the forces of the territorial governor: “From here we had a long view over the terrain we’d just now transcended. In all directions stood rocky crags. The wind sifted the pines. A pair of jays mimicked the call of an eagle. We didn’t stop to gander but kept on and soon broke over the top of the lip.” The language is concrete, taut, but not particularly evocative. It needs the nearly iambic cadence of Jess’s voice to become more rugged, more textured, than a stock still of a John Wayne flick’s crags and scrublands.
Still, the brutalism and self-interest of this novel’s characters seem a necessary indictment of the American ethos, especially in 2018. The Civil War remains a tender scar for Larison’s white settlers, as they align themselves with the Yanks or the Rebs. (The only common traits are their shared xenophobia toward Mexicans and Native Americans and their racism toward the novel’s few black characters—almost all servants caught up in institutional traps that perpetuated the power dynamics of slavery.) But while Jess is complex, the tall tale seldom tolerates a wealth of round characters. So Larison falls back on types. The men are usually cutouts, generic gun-slinging toughs, too incompetent to see around Jess’s disguise. The other women are either stoic ace shooters like Straight-Eye Susan or Jess’s eventual love interest Annette, sweet-talking sex workers in brothels, or starry-eyed angel-of-the-household types like the governor’s daughter Constance and Noah’s wife Jane. One wonders how the novel might have retuned the tall tale’s timbre if Whiskey When We’re Dry had looked to the women of Willa Cather’s frontier novels or the men of Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (even if Hansen’s prose feels dowdy, if not pedantic, next to Larison’s).
However, since Twain’s tall tales are the more obvious ancestors of Larison’s novel, we should approach Whiskey When We’re Dry with a rapt skepticism. If Twain’s Huck Finn can hoodwink Saunders into declaring the first person so sincerely “natural,” Larison’s Jess Harney can also fleece the 21st-century reader. After all, Jess has a stake here: Telling this tale gives her a final shot at preserving her own reputation as a gunslinger and undercutting the history peddled by the territorial governor and the victors of Manifest Destiny. In telling it, Jess Harney situates herself as the true outlaw who stood against the brutality of the American West and the fickle whims of men, even if they claimed credit for her skill as a schemer and a hired gun. And she does so at the expense of Noah’s legend: She credits herself as the mastermind who pulled a daring, dead-of-night counterattack when the governor’s militia besieged a town under Noah’s care, and she takes for herself the mantle of the willing martyr who sacrificed her own mythic stature in the West so Noah, his wife Jane, and their daughter could escape to Canada.
What makes a tall tale like Whiskey When We’re Dry so distinctly American, though, is its interest in chronicling the individual rather than the past. For Jessilyn Harney, telling her story is akin to Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”: She can insist that she existed; that she had the mettle to shape the world after her own vision; and that neither history, prison, nor infamy can stifle the sound of her voice over the frontier’s endless terrain.