by David Liss
560 pages. Ballatine Books. $15.
Review by Kate Kasserman
Hey, this book wasn’t about the Whiskey Rebellion! Teach me not to read the back cover (a-gain) before I jump in feet-first. Rather, it covers a (fictional) shortly pre-Whiskey Rebellion scheme by aggrieved westerners (back when “western” meant t’other side of PENNSYLVANIA, folks!) to TAKE OUT Alexander Hamilton and the freshly hatched east coast financial establishment. Funness!
The story follows two tracks that intersect only very near the end. Ethan Saunders, a former super-spy for the Revolutionary Army forced to resign under suspicion (I won’t spoiler this matter, but, just so you know, this is a skullduggery kind of book) of being a double-agent, has spent the past decade boozing it up and being an amiable loser in general – until his former fiancée and eternal-love calls him back into action to investigate the disappearance of her husband (rather credibility-stretchingly, but what the hey). And Joan Maycott, an intelligent, venturesome farm girl, marries her eternal-love and tries to make a go of it, until land-speculator shenanigans – compounded by federal inaction, perceived as indifference – rob her of everything she cares about. Then Hamilton’s whiskey tax comes, which is set to ruin her and her friends, like, permanently and irretrievably. Oy, the federal government finally does something, and it’s a tactical disaster! So…she decides to do something about it. Which is basically totally destroy the country so we can start over again. Okay! We’ve got a plan!
One of the strengths here is the page-turner quotient: this was a book I stayed up till 3 a.m. to finish, because – well, just because. Both Ethan’s and Joan’s stories move along at an entertaining clip. Another plus is the evocation of the time: the physical environment, the fragility of the new nation (seriously, people DRAMATICALLY underestimate that these days), the brutality of the frontier, and the – trust me, it sounds boring, but it is covered with a light, readable touch – arguments for and against Hamilton’s financial policies.
A relative weakness is in characterization. Not that you don’t know who to root for: rather, you might know a little too clearly. The failures of “team good” are downplayed, moderately unbelievable, or else couched in terms of a broader striving towards righteousness, while our baddies are sooooooo bad you can’t even imagine. Really. Your brain may explode softly within the confines of your skull as you try to contemplate how it came to pass that Ethan’s true love Cynthia married the villainous and incredibly stupid Jacob Pearson in the first place. Other than he used to be at least semi-hot, as we are informed.
Joan is kind of anachronistic in her psychology – a smidgie-peu too modern, as in her desire to write the Great American Novel – but she is really engaging right up to the moment where she loses her soul and gives herself over to revenge. The soul-losing moment itself is pretty faboo, so I won’t say anything about that. But right afterwards – she’s suddenly just not very interesting personally any more.
And her whole scheme, while suitably complex, does not really bear close scrutiny as a practical plan. As a dramatic device, it puts Joan et al. splat in the middle of the panic of 1792 as its direct instigator, so that is fine and good – but truly, truly, truly, it is a little frustrating that it hinges on things like “get a woman (!) into William Duer’s inner circle as the only confidante privy to all his most closely held secrets somehow” and “Hamilton probably didn’t even notice William Duer’s misappropriation of that unrepaid loan for TWO HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS from the Bank of the United States, whose success and reputation are the primary focus of all Hamilton’s energies, hopes, and dreams, but Joan amazingly discovers it on her own after a survey of publicly available documents.” You know. Stuff like that. It goes on. You just have to put it aside. This is, after all, fundamentally a potboiler.
Liss trots out some Big Names in this piece: Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, and Aaron Burr all make at least a brief physical appearance (along with a curious assertion that Jefferson was about the same height as Hamilton, which seems to serve no purpose in the story and simply was not true: J. was more than six inches taller. There, now ya know!). And some slightly lesser-known names come up too: Duer, Reynolds (these two being major players in the story), Freneau, Lavien (this is a fictional Lavien, but anyone who knows Hamiltonia of course will recognize the reference immediately), etc.
Generally, all of the real historical people are harnessed to the yoke of the plot rather than breathing as individual entities. I am of two minds about this. You really can’t talk about the panic of 1792 without giving at least most of these guys a brief spin on the stage – and yet the story here is not about them. So while I would have ADORED to see a more rounded Hamilton (still love ya, Hammy! xxx), for example, I have to admit that it might very well have been, overall, a distraction.
For me, at least, though, being somewhat versed in this era, their appearance – along with the story-driven assertions about their motives, thoughts, and behaviors – was in itself a little distracting. One smeensy example: Hamilton’s use of Kyler Lavien (the REAL super-spy here!), a character Liss invented. Okay, I will admit that Hamilton could be VERY pragmatic in setting aside his personal feelings about people (cf. his support for Jefferson in the Presidential election).
However. He had an EPIC hair up his nose about clan Lavien. (This is reality-land, not the book for a moment.) He never forgave his half-brother Peter Lavien for inheriting their mother’s estate (Peter Lavien was her only LEGITIMATE offspring) – even though poor Peter L. of course had nothing to do with that whole situation – an unforgiveness that ran so deep that even when Peter L. died and left all his sad, small holdings to my darling Alex, my darling Alex did not relent. Hamilton HATED the Laviens. So here we are, in the book, and an offshoot of that despised family is in America, and book-Hamilton thinks, oh yah, good, you are talented, okay, fine, thanks for looking me up, I will use you as my secret weapon. It kind of went against the grain of my pre-existing knowledge. (Also, that the Laviens were Jewish is speculative, and I don’t believe there’s any evidence that even if they were ETHNICALLY Jewish they admitted it and/or practiced that religion in the Indies.) Oh well, but it was interesting, though.
Okay, with all of this, it might seem as though I am heading towards a conclusion of “although it is mostly defensible, I felt kind of dirty for enjoying myself so much” – but, despite some flaws and distractions, I have to give The Whiskey Rebels a stronger recommendation than that. While we do not see much complexity in individual characters, Liss brings out the complexity of the broader situation beautifully, and I would mark this up as an unqualified and even very important success. Within the context of a potboiler – and without resorting to facile conclusions – he rouses some mammoth issues that are relevant not just to America then and now but humanity in general. How much imperfection and wrongness can you endure, and must you endure, in the service of the greater good?
That was at the heart of Hamilton’s financial plans (to his infinite rhetorical disadvantage – “hey, everybody, let’s aim for the…MIDDLE! And we will ride our low expectations of human nature…to GLORY!”), and that is at the heart of The Whiskey Rebels. David Liss, I think, must like Hamilton for what I consider to be the right reasons – reasons that are frequently obscured and overlooked. It’s a mighty fine balancing act, and it’s all too easy to slip to one side (a conniving William Duer) or the other (a deluded Joan Maycott), seeing one’s evils as necessary and justified…even when, when it all comes down to it, the evils have become the sum of the thing, and not merely cosmetic speckles on the blade of the axe. The distinction between sucking it up and lying self-justification is pretty peskily fuzzy sometimes. But it is always worthwhile to examine – frequently. And The Whiskey Rebels does, entertainingly.