In Whiskey When We’re Dry, John Larison has created a tale as beautiful as it is brutal, as touching as it is gritty and as heart warming as it is heartbreaking. It’s a genuinely authentic western where the dialect is traditional but is met with a modern literary touch which is thoroughly impressive.
Set in 1885, Jessilyn Harney lives on her family homestead with her Pa and brother Noah, her mother having died before Jessilyn knew her. The relationship between Noah and his father is fraught and it eventually boils over resulting in Noah fleeing the family home. Their father is never the same again and when he dies, he leaves seventeen year old Jess orphaned to fend for herself. After attempting to manage the land and cattle alone, she soon becomes desperate and decides to abandon her way on life and make off with her trusty horse Ingrid to find her brother who is beginning to make a name for himself as an outlaw.
‘The sun wore on us and Ingrid moved between islands of juniper shade. In a dream state of travel I felt dread at the prospect of confessing to Pa what I had lost, then remembered all over again I didn’t get to confess nothing to him no more.’
There’s no mistaking this is a man’s world and Jess makes the decision to cut off her hair and strap up her chest to make her look like a young man and to stand any chance of survival. Armed with her father’s Colt front loader, she sets off to find Noah and soon realises the enormity of the task. Jess learns that her brother has a bounty on his head and uses her shooting skills to attract the attention of the Governor, joining his militia who are hunting Noah. Here Jess builds her reputation living as a tobacco chewing young man, earning money to survive by hustling as a sharpshooter.
‘After I exhausted one saloon I rode to the next and began again. I found no shortage of men with a predilection for gambling and an unfounded confidence in their own abilities with a sidearm.’
The story is told in the first person from Jess’s perspective and we follow her as her confidence living as a man grows with each encounter. She becomes accepted in a tough world, impressing with her shooting skills and, over time, her physical and mental strength. Jess’s character arc is expertly managed providing for a well developed protagonist who lives long beyond the final page. There is an excellent storyline which is well paced between moments of intense action and tension and an equally matched in depth study of human resolve and relationships which Jess develops with the new characters she meets.
Whilst the story has all the hallmarks of a classic western, Larison has provided a uniquely modern approach to many other aspects of the book. The prose is beautiful, presented in a profoundly lyrical style whilst maintaining a convincing and true tone throughout. The plot could have been fifty pages shorter but the poetic language used and literary nature of the book make the extra pages all the more worthwhile.
The difference with this cowboy tale is that are so many modern day themes which are subtly woven in making the story resonate on so many levels. Yes, there are sharpshooters, duels and gun slinging. There are family feuds and patriarchal machismo on show. There are also some eye watering and brutal scenes, albeit never gratuitous, and a good dose of humour throughout. But the impressive tapestry of storylines also tackles issues of race, gender and sexuality in a very nuanced and clever manner. Different forms of addiction are also confronted as the story progresses, which provides an honest alternative to the often depicted view of excessive consumption in this genre. These themes provide the book with a fresh and relevant feel even though it is set more than a hundred and twenty years ago.
John Larison is a refreshing new voice to the western novel which is thoroughly engaging and a true pleasure to read. If you’re a fan of Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, there’s plenty in Whiskey When We’re Dry for you to indulge in and there’s no doubt that this novel will be talked about it the same breath as these greats in years to come.
Thanks to ever impressive No Exit Press for the advanced review copy. UK Release date 25th July 2019.
Whiskey Where We’re Dry is published by No Exit Press and is available here.
John Larison spent much of his childhood in remote regions of Australia, the Caribbean, Canada, the South Pacific, Alaska, and the American West before graduating from high school in Ithaca, New York. He studied philosophy and literature at the University of Oregon, and became a renowned fly-fishing guide ahead of earning an MFA from Oregon State University, where he stayed to teach while writing Whiskey When We’re Dry. He lives with his family in rural Oregon
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