An outsider endures violence and redemption in the Wild West

A familiar trope of storytelling puts women and people of color on center stage.

 

“You should know I ain’t confessing on account I fear my Maker,” says Jess, the extraordinary narrator and unlikely hero of John Larison’s novel Whiskey When We’re Dry. “Ain’t nothing that could happen to me that I don’t rightly deserve.”

Jess’ honesty and steadfast sense of justice anchor this book, a richly imagined version of a classic Wild West tale that probes the origins of violence in human nature.  Whiskey When We’re Dry compresses the wide scale of Western brutality — from barroom brawls to military campaigns — into a story both unique and universal, as harshly beautiful as it is perfectly paced.

After her mother dies giving birth to her, Jess is raised rough by her father and brother, Noah, on a lonely ranch “where desert met lake.” The “woman work” falls to her, but she watches when her father teaches Noah to shoot. While the men are off tending the herd, Jess practices with her father’s Colt. Her talent with the weapon becomes necessary after her father dies and Noah runs away. Disguised as a man, she sets off to find her brother — now the wanted leader of a gang of outlaws — and convince him to come home. Seeking clues to his whereabouts, she finds employment as a guard for the Governor, an archetypically villainous plutocrat who sees Noah’s banditry as a personal affront.

It’s a plot setup straight out of any spaghetti Western. But Whiskey balances gritty realism, lyrical description and good old-fashioned page-turning action without ever feeling contrived. And it offers a refreshingly diverse cast of characters. This is a Western in which women and people of color not only exist but take center stage, and which acknowledges that gender and sexuality have always been fluid.

Illustration by Luna Anna Archey

The story relies on a familiar device — a young woman dressing as a man to seek freedom or vengeance or glory. This time-honored trope often reinforces the idea that heroic traits are essentially male; “strong female characters” are simply women who emulate male characteristics. But Jess, uncomfortable fully inhabiting either role, transcends this binary. She aims the same critical eye at everything around her, including gender expectations. Once living among Noah’s Wild Bunch, outcasts and misfits of “all colors and persuasions,” she begins to carve out a life defined more by her talents and instincts than her gender, in a group where actions, more than identity, determine acceptance.  

Jess’ eloquent voice propels the narration, lending levity to the book’s heavy moral themes and ringing true even as it blends sophisticated prose with matter-of-fact vernacular. After shooting a man in a mob threatening the Governor:

“A potent whiskey come over me then, all at once. It poured from their eyes when those eyes flinched from me. In that whiskey was proof I too was made of grit and gravel and could not be blown from this earth by simple winds. … I was high now, so high I could let myself believe we was on the side of right.”

We share Jess’ experiences and her growing consciousness of the world beyond her family’s ranch, a wild and dusty unnamed state where the Civil War, two decades past, still casts a shadow over attempts to invent a new society. “My calling is to turn wilderness into America,” the Governor tells Jess. The battle between his dreams of dominion and the Robin Hood ethic of Noah’s gang, who see protecting the underclass as their own divine calling, reflects a dynamic familiar in our new Gilded Age.

The outlaws and outcasts may be the heroes, but no one escapes critique. “I know it don’t make no sense on paper, but I believe a soul can be on both sides,” Jess muses, as she experiences both the thrill of violence and the weight of its moral implications. In the era of manifest destiny, brutality occurred at a systemic level. But Whiskey also shows the day-to-day cruelty so often inflicted by and on small, tight-knit bands of people who depended on each other for survival. Jess describes the chilling bond created by the pursuit of vengeance:

“It occurred to me then that if I died today, they would deliver war to my killer. If I was dragged off by wolves, they would slaughter those wolves one by one to recover me. We had together done what we done, together and without dissent. We was a republic unto ourselves. So long as we was together, the Lord dwelled no farther away than the nearest patriot.”

Whiskey builds to a gripping and almost unbearably tragic climax, complicating Jess’, and our own, attempts to wrestle with whether violence on any scale can ever be justified. But in telling her story, Jess makes the case that by owning the dark parts of our histories, laying ourselves bare to judgment, we offer redemption to those who come after. As she writes to the next generation of her family: “Our story is yours to make.” 

Claire Thompson is a freelance writer based in Montana. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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