John Larison’s powerful Western, Whiskey When We’re Dry, first came to him as a voice. Not a place, or a plot, or a theme, just a character recalling hard times decades past. “I was walking one night and I heard this voice in my ear,” says Larison from his home in Oregon. “I’m not usually someone who writes at night, but I rushed home and wrote the first page of the book, and kept pressing ahead with what I’d written. I could hear this kind of salty American language and was compelled by it.”
That voice became the novel’s narrator, Jess, who in 1885 heads west from her family’s prairie homestead to find that her brother, Noah, has become the Jesse James-styled leader of a violent posse. “Little children hear his name, Noah Harney, and they see men falling from stagecoaches and smoke rising from a barrel and they think a man is made real by the violence he wields,” Jess explains.
That line hints at the novel’s main thematic material: the mythology of the Wild West and the intersection of violence and masculinity. To underscore those tropes, Jess goes on her adventure dressed as a man, insinuating her way into trick-shooting tests and the inner circle of a territorial governor.
That gender switch came later in the novel’s ten-year writing process. “I definitely felt that one thing the Western could do really well was explore masculinity,” Larison says. “I had found myself in the mind of this character who was straddling two genders and, like many Americans, had put her childhood trust in the patriarchal figure. But first Jess’ father let her down, and then her brother. As she grew into her own person, she started to see through the cracks, started to see the bluster.”
Whiskey is Larison’s third novel, following two small-press works centering on one of his obsessions, fly-fishing culture in the Northwest. (He worked as a fly-fishing guide before pursuing an MFA at Oregon State University.) Writing the novel provided an opportunity to immerse himself in Western culture, devouring history books and plenty of fiction, from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Houseseries to Louis L’Amour pulps to Charles Portis’ True Grit and Philipp Meyer’s The Son.
Still, Larison was careful not to let historical detail overshadow Jess’s narrative. Indeed, he held off on providing too many details about place, the better to match the reader’s sense of disorientation with his hero’s. “If you think about the experience of people on the frontier in the 1880s, the boundaries that we all think about didn’t exist,” he says. “Even in the 1880s there was a sense that what might be American territory might not remain American territory, that what’s Mexican territory might not remain Mexican territory. These things were all in such flux that I felt being true to the experience was not knowing the specific place where you’re standing.”
The film and TV rights for the novel have already been picked up by the production team behind the recent Planet of the Apes franchise, which speaks to Larison’s knack with the Western form. But he’s already shifting tack, working on a pair of novels, including one set in ancient Europe. That’s far from the Rockies, but Larison sees a connection. “When we think of hunters and gatherers, we think of it as a patriarchal culture,” he says. “But if you study anthropology, you’ll see that grandmothers are far more important than three to five hunters in their prime.”
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of The New Midwest.