Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Whiskey Rebels

The Whiskey Rebels, by David Liss, is one of the most disappointing books I've read in a long time. Based on the many 5-star reviews that it has on Amazon and Goodreads, I expected it to be great but despite a strong plot and more than occasional flashes of brilliance, I found the book to be deeply flawed.

One of the two protagonists (the Joan Maycott character) was so annoying that I almost couldn't stand to be in the same room with her. She was unbelievable for starters--the most beautiful woman, charming, a natural born leader (the other characters compared her to Washington!), a born writer (she read a few novels, a couple of book on political economy, and then in her free time on the frontier wrote the first great American novel--puh-lease!), a born financial wizard (remember those couple of books on political economy, they gave her everything she needed to know to best Alexander Hamilton in high-stakes finance). She talked in platitudes--blathering on and on about her patriotism and that of her husband and the other veterans of the Revolutionary War. It seemed whenever the author had to write her dialogue he couldn't come up with anything fresh. I found her repetitive, sanctimonious, wooden, boring, and false as a character. Give me womanizer, drunkard Ethan Saunders (the other protagonist) any day--he was interesting with an authentic voice.

Given how much I disliked Joan Maycott, why did I still give this book 3 stars on Goodreads? Because it's a great story about an interesting time in American history and most of it is well-crafted and well-written. I wish the author had figured out how to tell the other side of the story without resorting to the likes of Joan. Had he, it probably would've been a 5-star book for me.

I think any author who decides to have a double narrator is going to have a major challenge, but I've seen this successfully done.  Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier is a good example, but in that book the two narrators are working towards a common goal, being together.  In The Whiskey Rebels, the two narrators are antagonists and so it's natural for the reader to favor one over the other.  It's hard for me to understand why Liss would pick such a difficult narrative style.  Granted, it does seem like a clever way to to tell the two opposing sides of a story, but for me it really didn't work.  Perhaps if I had liked Joan more, I might have wanted to see her succeed.  As it was, I was really rooting for her downfall.

The other big problem I had with this book is that I think the title misrepresented the story.  I wanted to read about the people behind the Whiskey Rebellion.  Apart from the backstory it gave Joan and her "band" and their motivation to destroy Alexander Hamilton and the Bank of the United States, the story didn't have anything to do with the actual insurrection and the newly formed government's methods of dealing with it.  The story was really about financiers and their plans to manipulate the markets as the financial infrastructure of the country was being developed.  That was an interesting story, but not the one I had hoped to read.  Since the novel did have two narrators, and Ethan Saunders was not a Whiskey rebel, I think I am justified in griping about the novel being mistitled.

I have another David Liss historical novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, on my TBR shelf.  I wonder how it compares to The Whiskey Rebels in terms of living up to its reputation.  A Conspiracy of Paper was first published in 2000 and takes place in 18th century London.  The Whiskey Rebels was published in 2008 and takes place in 18th century Philadelphia, New York, and the Pennsylvania frontier.  A Conspiracy of Paper won the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  I think I will eventually read it, but if it disappoints me as The Whiskey Rebels did, I will have to simply write off David Liss as an author whose books I want to read.

To be fair, I did earmark a couple of pages in which Liss really did show his chops as a writer.  Here is my favorite (from one of the Ethan Saunders' chapters):

All these things were bound together, but that did not mean they originated from the same point.  Another thing I had learned during the war was that unrelated threads become entangled because important men can be important in more than one sphere at a time.  Hamilton's secretive dealings with Duer's men might have nothing to do with the threat against the bank or Cynthia's husband's disappearance.  On the other hand, just because these things might begin as unrelated didn't mean they stayed that way, and it would be best to assume connections even when there could be no logical reason for them to exist.  Mysterious actions and unknown plots are uncovered not by understanding motives but by understanding men.
I think the line that I highlighted is absolutely true and applies to fiction writing in spades.  My problem with The Whiskey Rebels is that I don't think Liss demonstrated that he understood women, which is why the character of Joan feels so false to me.

This was the second book in the TBR Challenge for 2013 that I have read.  Great progress in making room on my TBR shelves for more books!  This book also counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge.


  1. Great review - your honestly is appreciated.

  2. The Whisky rebellion as well as the opposition to Hamilton's bank is immensely interesting to me.

    It is too bad that this book was such disappointment. As you describe her the Joan Maycott character reminds me of the way that Ayn Rand portrayed characters.

    1. Yes, Ayn Rand's protagonists are kin to Joan Maycott, not just in the strength, skill, and leadership abilities, but philosophically as well. Joan sees the federal govt as evil and her job is to crush it with a small band of devoted followers.

      I stopped reading Atlas Shrugged half way through and never regretted not finishing it.

  3. I'm curious to see what you think of his other novel - I had his book The Coffee Trader in my hand this weekend, but decided to wait to get it.

  4. I think it takes real skill for a male author to get a female protagonist just perfect. I would probably try this one. I do like the sound of it.

    Hope you are doing well Jane and having a good week. We are hoping to see grass by May after 2 feet of snow:)