John Larison's "Whiskey When We're Dry" is an enjoyable addition to the ever-evolving literature of the American West.

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Book review

In “Whiskey When We’re Dry,” Oregon author John Larison spins a smooth yet bracing Western yarn that both celebrates and subverts the romance of the Old West through more complex contemporary perspectives on gender and race.

Her dark-skinned mother having died in her infancy, young Jessilyn Harney has grown up ranching out on the range with her Pa and her older brother Noah. Suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, her Pa is haunted by the things he saw and did while a sharpshooter in the Civil War. Having succumbed to the lure of opiate-laced patent medicine, her stern father has become a shell of his former self. As he tersely puts it, “This life has a habit of reducing a man.”  

When Jessilyn is 13, Noah rebels and runs away, and Jessilyn has already grown into an orphan in all but name when, during the autumn of her 16th year, her Pa sets out for the high country and never makes it back. Going after him, she finds only tattered clothing, gnawed bones and hair, amid the tracks of a mountain lion.

Adrift and alone on the family homestead, a veritable nonentity, Jessilyn’s only recourse would seem to be to get herself a husband, yet she is utterly unschooled in the prettified ways of women, completely at sea in the rituals of courtship. Meanwhile, in the years since his departure, her brother has become a nearly legendary outlaw, the “ruthless Noah Harney, leader of the Wild Bunch,” wanted dead or alive by the law, yet something of a hero to the common man.

Tall, muscular and deep-voiced, and a crack shot with a pistol, Jessilyn makes a radical decision. She cuts her hair, binds her chest, and sets out to track down Noah under the assumed name and gender of Jesse, soon refined to Mr. Jesse Straight, gunslinger.  

The premise isn’t all that far-fetched. Contemporary accounts abound with records of women who fought as men in the Civil War, and then there was legendary stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst, discovered upon his demise to be anatomically a woman.

Launching on her quest, Jesse encounters a varied succession of colorful characters. A dispirited prostitute called Lilly Flowers immediately sees through Jesse’s disguise, and when asked how she wound up working in a brothel, gives the book its title: “We reach for the familiar drink when we run dry.” There is a fiery preacher, an English doctor, and everywhere grim and boastful men, quick to violence. Jesse’s dual status gives her a unique perspective on this macho world, with a knack for seeing through the belligerent posturing and false bravado of men who are a far less deadly shot than she is. Tension mounts as Jesse joins up with a militia organized by a vindictive governor with a vendetta against her brother. It is here that she encounters another militiaman who is attracted to Jesse, but not as a woman.

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. Describing the pleasures of marksmanship, she observes “There comes a holy rightness after a bull’s-eye, and the first one is a downright revelation.” 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.

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Whiskey When We’re Dry” by John Larison, Viking, 387 pp., $26

John Larison will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com.