The Old West holds an intoxicating allure to the modern mind. Between both versions of Westworld, Back to the Future Part III, City Slickers and The Legend of Curly’s Gold alike, as a society we can’t help going back there. Whiskey When We’re Dry, John Larison’s debut novel, is a return to a well that we can visit any number of times without ever exhausting the supply. The West was boundless in the imagination, and can fit many stories; Whiskey When We’re Dry is one of the more meditative examples.
In 1885, teenager Jessilyn Harney leaves her homestead, disguises herself as a young man, and sets off in search of her outlaw brother Noah. Along the way Jessilyn will adopt several new names, join a private army, make extravagant wagers, and make friends outside of her immediate family.
Written over the course of eight years while Larison worked odd jobs — a fact explicitly stated in the “about the author” material at the back — Whiskey When We’re Dry is far from overwrought and does not ramble. Combining the rapidly domesticating frontier with the still open wounds of the Civil War and placing these burdens on the shoulders of a young woman who is essentially alone in the world, Larison has built a delicate character study that reads mostly true.
Presented in the form of a letter written by Jessilyn to a mostly anonymous recipient some forty years after the events described, Larison is able to tap into a depth and range of emotion for his character that belies the teenaged nature of her actions. Jessilyn comes to understand the peril of meeting your heroes and the need to become your own. Her reluctance to wear a crown combats her natural charisma – and her hard-won sharp-shooting talent – and she has to decide which side will win.
Whiskey When We’re Dry comes to effectively challenge the concept of the myth versus reality. Whatever Jessilyn’s expectations of her life, they are scuttled at every turn. Larison has a gift for invention that seems unpredictable while remaining in the realm of credibility. Each of the five parts of the novel finds Jessilyn in a new scenario of varying likelihood, but Larison makes them all work.
Larison’s ability to sketch spare but detailed character portraits of characters like guardsmen Drummond and Greenie endears them to both Jessilyn and the reader despite their initial character failings, and it shows that despite the unforgiving and inhospitable nature of the time that all of these people inhabit, there is still room for human warmth. If some members of Jessilyn’s retinue are more permissive than they may actually have been in the real world nineteenth century, it allows for the harder elements of Whiskey When We’re Dry to stand in contrast.
Whiskey When We’re Dry is a western debut infused with dust, snow and despair. John Larison has crafted prose that washes over the reader. It’s unlikely that we will see any of these characters again – it’s genre, but it’s literary genre – but Jessilyn Harney will stay with the reader after the covers are closed. Larison should try not to take eight years between drinks, because Whiskey When We’re Dry will leave you satisfied but thirsty for more.