I love a good story. I particularly love a good story when it’s told by a masterful storyteller, one who knows the precise details to add without robbing me, as a reader, of the chance to bring my own imagination into play. Master storytellers capture all the right nuances: the oddly-timed facial tick, a hard-drinking character’s pause in conversation to take a nip, a liar’s fascination with the patterns of dirt on the toes of his boots. I particularly love an historical novelist who not only tells a story masterfully, but does so while populating his tale with the kinds of characters one ordinarily does not encounter in an historical novel.
For all these reasons and more, I loved David Liss’ latest novel: The Whiskey Rebels. So much so, I might add, that I’ve now read it twice in the short time since it arrived in the mail.
My first go-through was an admittedly hurried one. I was flying down to see my mother in Austin at the time, and due to the stressful nature of my life with two ailing parents these days, my stack of books to review had grown quite large. When that happens, I make it a habit to read first the books I know I’ll have to compel myself to read: the politically-oriented nonfiction and the “memoirs” written by people whose fascination with their own lives I just don’t share. When it’s done well, I savor fiction, and so I’d put Liss’ book off to read on “my time”.
Once seated on the plane, I immediately cracked open Liss’ book. By page two, I was chuckling. By page three, my face had adopted a sardonic smile that stayed in place through a lengthy layover in Memphis and the second leg of my flight from there to Austin. Because, in addition to loving it when an author tells a good tale, I love it when one breathes life into characters who are as fascinating as they are flawed. Having finished his book by the time I finally landed in Austin, I told my brother he simply must read it… then proceeded to keep my copy so I could read it again on the flight home, too. Yeah, it’s that good.
It’s just so rare that I run into one character, much less two that I so wholly enjoy. But that’s precisely how I felt about Ethan Saunders, a former spy for General Washington during the Revolutionary War who undeservedly spent 10 years debasing himself as punishment for a crime he did not commit. In counterpoint, Liss gives us a clever woman who’s not merely an anti-heroine but an anti-historical novel heroine: Joan Maycott, a woman who masterminds her own rise in society despite her own crime.
What’s truly uncanny — and I don’t think even David Liss himself would claim to have foreseen it — is how The Whiskey Rebels is set smack in the middle of a banking crisis very similar to that which we’re reading about in today’s headlines. Through Liss we see Alexander Hamilton struggling to fend off a short run on the newly formed U.S. Bank by unscrupulous and money-hungry traders.
Playing against each other, these Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott’s are more fascinating than any real life political chess match, though — unbeknown to them — they’re both playing for the same side. But as we all know, the means to an end matter just as much as the end, and Liss delivers a satisfying affirmation of that belief.
Liss’ book will be released September 30. I’d recommend pre-ordering. It’s worth the wait.