As in Charles Portis’ classic True Grit, much of the appeal of the telling hangs upon the distinct voice of its narrator, and Jesse’s narration combines folksy vernacular with an easy loping gait, punctuated by the ringing cadences of the Good Book ... It is comfortable, burnished Western prose that goes down smooth with hardly a false note. Yet for all its wistful cowboy poetry, the story told here is decidedly unromantic, piercing the heroism of the Old West and highlighting the experiences and identities of marginalized people who were traditionally written out of the script. Larison strikes a fine balance between satisfying and surprising our expectations, in an enjoyable addition to the ever-evolving literature of the American West.
The words 'genre' and 'gender' have a root in common, and in his western...John Larison looks to subvert both ... Mr. Larison can turn a sharp phrase...but he’s a writer who takes his time, filling scenes with atmosphere and reflection. (As though to signal his departure from Leonard’s rulebook, he opens by mentioning the weather.) The novel suffers from inconsistency. The propulsive first section follows Jessilyn’s search for Noah. In the second, she joins his mountain redoubt and idles the time hiding from authorities. A more disciplined writer would have tightened the latter portion considerably. Even so, there are pleasures to be had from a book that moves at an amble—that sometimes takes a detour for no reason except to admire the view.
Western novels are cool again, and Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a perfect example of why. Set in 1885 in the heart of the Midwest, the novel shirks the traditional white-hat-versus-black-hat shtick for a more grounded, emotional view of life on the range ... Like Philipp Meyer’s The Son or Robert Olmstead’s Savage Country, Whiskey When We’re Dry draws on Larison’s own experiences with the 'cowboy arts' to paint a vivid portrait of the American West as witnessed by an unforgettable character.
Its braggadocio is disguised as candor, and the novel mutes any trace of absurdity with its sharp plot, its tendency to whisper secrets rather than dwell on them, and its preference for scene overexposition ... If the narrator were different, or if the novel were in third person, Larison might not have managed the feat of constructing Jess’s frontier, let alone maintaining the novel’s breathless pace ... But while Jess is complex, the tall tale seldom tolerates a wealth of round characters. So Larison falls back on types ... since Twain’s tall tales are the more obvious ancestors of Larison’s novel, we should approach Whiskey When We’re Dry with a rapt skepticism.
Told in Jessilyn's hard-hitting voice, this latest from Larison...has the resonance of a high lonesome ballad. The characters echo legends of the American West, and the scenes of frontier violence are immediate and vivid. For readers of Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist and Courtney Collin's The Untold.
Larison gifts Jess with a strong voice to narrate her own story ... Larison...writes the novel’s many action scenes with restraint, and adds considerations of race, class, and religion to Jess’ realizations about gender. Larison’s western epic has wide appeal and is already in development for film.
True Grit meets Yentl in Larison’s evocative debut ... Larison has developed a pitch-perfect voice for his intrepid heroine and populated the story with a lively crew of frontier types. Although overlong and sluggish in places, this is a winning tale of sexual identity in the Old West.
The novel’s plot is a familiar Western, with duels, raids, and betrayals, brought thematically up to date with a few scenes involving closeted sexuality and mixed-race relationships. But its main distinction is Jess’ narrative voice: flinty, compassionate, unschooled, but observant about a violent world where men 'eat bullets and walk among ghosts.' The dialogue sometimes lapses into saloon-talk truisms ... But Jess herself is a remarkable hero. Like a pair of distressed designer jeans, the narrative's scruffiness can feel a little too engineered, but the narrator's voice is engaging and down-to-earth.