'The Whiskey Rebels' by David Liss

Whiskey rebellion frames historical novel

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Paintings of the Western Pennsylvania frontier often depict stalwart men in period dress, their jaws set in noble determination as if they know they are building the stage for a grand nation.

But did our pre-Steeler Pittsburghers really look like that?


By David Liss
Random House ($26)


"The men were all bearded and rugged and a disproportionate number were missing an eye. The women, for their part, were often misshapen and hunched, with faces ravaged by weather, hands clenched and arthritic like demonic claws. It was the rare citizen who possessed even half his teeth, and all the people, like the buildings, were black with coal dust."

Welcome to the Golden Triangle, circa 1790, as described by David Liss, a historical novelist of some accomplishment ("A Conspiracy of Paper," "A Spectacle of Corruption").

In his new novel, he brings to life the raw frontier where the pioneers, barely more than cavemen and cavewomen, lived out that nasty and brutish life, their suffering eased by the gulps of local rye whiskey.

"Conditions on the Western frontier were every bit as brutal as I describe, and probably more so," he adds in a note. Liss also thanks the Senator John Heinz History Center for research help.

Making the booze was an efficient way to profit from the region's bounty of grain, but others, like Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, saw the liquor as a source of revenue under the country's new constitution.

His move to tax alcohol set off the Whiskey Rebellion, fought in these woods and requiring federal troops to quell it.

Money, how to make it and how to manage it efficiently to make the government more powerful were Hamilton's concerns in establishing the first national bank. There was even a financial panic in 1792, with echoes of it in the air today.

Out of these elements, Liss fashions a thriller of sorts with fictional characters including a U.S. agent and a conspiratorial woman out for revenge, moving around Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York.

There are more elements, from slavery to the miserable fate awaiting Native Americans, that Liss smartly combines into a historical novel brimming with reality and personalities.

His heroine, Joan Maycott, styles herself a novelist-in-training who plans to write the first contemporary novel about Americans and money, but her marriage to a Revolutionary War veteran exposes her to cheaters and crooks in Pittsburgh.

Ethan Saunders, another war vet down on his luck thanks to Hamilton, is an Errol Flynn swashbuckler who seduces wealthy women while drinking himself senseless. Thanks to Hamilton, he gets back on his feet investigating a plot against the new federal bank.

Their stories are told in alternating chapters, and, of course, they merge as the novel creeps toward denouement, creeps because Liss' plotting seems to move much like the U.S. mail service of the day.

As Pittsburgh marks the 250th anniversary of its naming, this novel makes an entertaining if slow-moving way to look back to its formative years.


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