Author David Liss is back after a two-year absence with his fifth novel, a fabulous new work of historical fiction -- this time on U.S. soil.
After portraying the suspense of early financial markets and political mischief in London and Amsterdam with his first three novels -- “A Conspiracy of Paper,” ”The Coffee Trader” and ”A Spectacle of Corruption” -- Liss turns to the Federalist period of American history, just after the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
“The Whiskey Rebels” is told in alternating chapters by two first-person narrators, former Revolutionary War spy Ethan Saunders and would-be early American novelist Joan Maycott.
The picaresque Saunders character will feel quite familiar to Liss readers.
He is the American reincarnation of the swashbuckling Benjamin Weaver, the London protagonist in ”A Conspiracy of Paper” and ”A Spectacle of Corruption.”
Saunders and Maycott are fictional characters, but many of the other characters are not. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton triggers the novel’s action. Hamilton, of course, wanted a strong federal government based on the British model, a notion opposed by Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson remains in the background, but historical financial trader William
Duer and Vice President Aaron Burr play key roles in the novel.
It was Hamilton’s whiskey tax, and its far-reaching effects, that ignited the historical Whiskey Rebellion. Whiskey makers in far west Pennsylvania felt the tax was unfair since many of their revenues were in barter, not cash. They couldn’t pay taxes if they never handled cash.
Liss plants Saunders and Maycott into this rebellion. Saunders, a discredited spy with a weakness for the bottle, concerns himself with the safety of a former fiance now married to a financial broker who has disappeared.
Maycott marries a former Revolutionary War soldier with hopes to pioneer the American novel. They set out to the rugged reaches of western Pennsylvania to experience the frontier. They find themselves swindled by Duer and his partners, but the couple stumbles onto a source of wealth with a new whiskey recipe.
Hamilton’s tax begins, sparking violence, death and revenge.
Liss gradually draws Saunders’ and Maycott’s stories together into an ever-tightening spiral that spins into the fragility of America’s first baby steps toward a national economy. The market manipulations and the conspiracies to corner the market on newly issued government debt and bank stocks will remind readers of U.S. events that dominate recent business news pages. Some behavior never seems to change.
What distinguished Liss’ first three novels in the suspense genre was the literary quality of his stories and prose. This quality is even more evident in ”The Whiskey Rebels.”
Opposing strong characters create a series of tense scenes. The dialogue, sometimes quite witty, is marvelous. Appearance versus reality plays out to perfection, keeping readers guessing on who is trying to do what.
In addition to the federalist-versus-states rights conflict, Liss blends several other themes that enrich the story. Men’s varied emotions about women comes to the surface many times with both Saunders and Maycott.
Liss’ treatment of slavery and the doom hanging over Indians adds heft to the setting of the early 1790s.
Saunders has legally freed his slave, Leonidas, who basically is a bodyguard, gofer and sounding board as the former spy investigates activities by Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s minions.
Saunders delays telling Leonidas of his freedom because he still needs Leonidas’ services.
As Maycott and her husband, Andrew, make the tortuous trek to western Pennsylvania, their encounters with Indians, displaced and disoriented by settlements, foreshadow the decimation of Indian populations by disease and war farther West in the decades to come, especially in the 1830s.
Patriotism is debated, an issue that reverberates in this decade.
“What does it mean to be a patriot?” Maycott asks. ”You love the America in your head and your heart, but is that the same America that takes from poor men money they don’t have so rich men can have a corrupt bank? Is that why you fought in the war? . . . Is that why your friends died? They died for liberty, not so that oppression might spring from nearer tyrants.”
Whew! Is that a loaded passage or what, given today’s issues of taxation, war, financial greed and national security?
Liss stumbled in his fourth novel two years ago, a contemporary novel titled ”The Ethical Assassin,” because he avoided this sophisticated level of nuance.
In “The Ethical Assassin,” Liss, a vegan, punished readers rather than enlightened them on the issue of animal rights.
Despite that misstep, Liss possesses talent that cannot be denied.
“The Whiskey Rebels” is educational, entertaining and thoughtful. Readers will have difficulty waiting for Liss’ next novel, “The Devil’s Company,” reviving Benjamin Weaver, due next year.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES