Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison is a Western you know, as well as the Western you don’t. That’s namely due to Whiskey’s main character, Jessilyn. The story is told from Jessilyn’s point of view, and with that comes her unique speech and colloquialisms. In turn, the voice of Whiskey is extremely strong in transporting the reader to the late 19th century, as well as helping the reader actually hear Jessilyn. The voice of Whiskey is perhaps its strongest feature, the second being Jessilyn herself and the other women characters.
When Jessilyn is left utterly alone and nearly penniless on her family spread, she must take matters into her own hands to find her now infamous outlaw brother. Naive of the world and of womanhood, Jessilyn turns to what she knows: a man’s life. Jess successfully passes herself off as a quick shot young man. It’s her brave spirit, confidence, and dashing of all womanly social norms that soon land her in the employ of the Governor’s guard. Taking up different monikers, Jess quickly makes a name for herself as a trick shot a la Annie Oakley (although no one knows she is a woman.)
While we often associate Westerns with the height of machismo and masculinity, Whiskey turns that notion on its head by having a woman embody those characteristics in all their grittiness and brutality. And the reader later comes to find that Jess isn’t the only woman living outside of societal norms. This book isn’t just all gun fighting in the Wild West, as Larison thoughtfully and beautifully explores the complexity of sexuality, gender identity, grief, right vs wrong, and even alcoholism. Larison’s prose is as unique as the voice he’s given Jessilyn. The reader may even waiver back and forth on if Jessilyn is actually a likable person–but that complexity of character is what’s compelling. Despite this deftly crafted main character, Whiskey is a slow burn. The ending climax seemed a bit drawn out, if not a tad predictable.