This book has flaws; it takes far too long for Jess’s quest to begin. The last third, which centres on Noah and his divine sense of destiny, outclasses what comes before. The book needs more Noah, less of Jess’s early trials. Nonetheless, it is a powerful, impressive novel. This epic western has a modern novel’s interest in gender and sexuality, but never loses its visceral and authentic sense of time and place.
Thought the Western was defunct? Not so. Larison has taken the format and fashioned it into a tense, violent arena of split loyalties, obsession, gender fluidity and high-stake emotions... In places, the plot could have been more compressed and the prose reigned in. Yet, overall, the punch and intensity of the writing and the voice of Jessie are rather remarkable. So, too, is the depiction of her inner life, which lifts the novel high above the run of the mill.
Larison’s ambitious western novel Whiskey When We’re Dry transcends many of the genre’s limitations in its story of Jessilyn Harney, a 17-year-old who, dressed in men’s clothes, leaves behind the family homestead after her father’s death and sets off in search of her long-lost brother, a man now infamous as an outlaw. Jess’s adventures, recounted in her richly idiosyncratic voice, resemble those of the traditional western hero, but Larison uses them to examine very modern ideas about identity, sexuality and the use of violence.
But for all its richness, True Grit is also self consciously a burlesque on the traditional western, providing an alibi for the unlikeliness of its premise; Whiskey When We're Dry plays it straight and Larison makes the reader believe in it through the remarkable skill with which Jess's narrative voice is realised.
Larison imbues the romance and wide-open spaces of the classic western with modern gender and racial awareness, giving space to those left out of the classic Old West mythos, but the main draw is Jesse’s narrative voice, all folksy eloquence peppered with grit and determination.