Irrational Exuberance

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Reviewed by Kevin Baker
Sunday, November 30, 2008


By David Liss

Random House. 525 pp. $26

If timing really is everything, David Liss should have himself a bestseller. His new book, The Whiskey Rebels, revolves around the resentment of Western libertarians toward Eastern elites, a plot to bring down the nation's financial system and a scandal that threatens the federal government. Sound familiar?

Everything old is new again. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was a seminal moment in American history, despite its faintly derisive name. For the first time, the national government showed itself willing to assert its authority, sending an army against rebellious frontiersmen in western Pennsylvania. George Washington his uniform back on and led the troops, becoming the only president in our history to serve as commander-in-chief in the field (assuming, of course, that one doesn't count W. on the carrier deck in his "Mission Accomplished" jumpsuit).

Wisely, Liss decided not to write about the military action itself, which was the definition of anticlimactic: a handful of rebels rounded up, then pardoned, with hardly a shot fired in anger. Instead, his historical novel is about the financial shenanigans surrounding it. The rebellion was sparked when Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant first secretary of the Treasury, looked to finance the federal government -- and especially his controversial First Bank of the United States -- with an excise tax on the distillation of whiskey. This infuriated the cash-poor Western farmers, who relied on their home brew as an improvised currency, and who already despised the federal government for failing to help with their main preoccupations, namely killing Indians and building decent roads and waterways to bring their crops to Eastern markets. Hamilton judged the bank essential to establishing the United States as a serious country, but his efforts set off a veritable "bank mania" in the financial markets of Philadelphia and New York, as well as a rash of financial skullduggery that threatened to bring the nation's precarious new economy crashing down upon his head.

This is an all-too-neglected period in American history, and especially historical fiction, but Liss is on familiar ground. Among his previous four books is the Edgar Award-winning A Conspiracy of Paper, set during England's notorious "South Sea bubble" -- the world's first true stock market crash -- and he is adept at explicating the intricacies of 18th-century finance.

The Whiskey Rebels is told through two first-person narrators: Joan Maycott, a Pennsylvania widow who has lost everything she cared about, thanks to the shenanigans of greedy land speculators spurred on by Hamilton's tax and bank schemes; and Ethan Saunders, a disgraced spy from the Revolution who has also hit rock bottom and is now a witty drunk staggering through the rum pits of 1790s Philadelphia.

This seems like a promising set-up: the cynical, down-and-out man of mystery still nursing his broken heart, crossing paths with a desperate woman employed in a noble cause (see "Casablanca"). Unfortunately, it takes much too long for that encounter to come about; imagine "Casablanca" if Ingrid Bergman didn't reach Morocco until the final reel. Maycott's story is mostly her background, which at least provides us with a compelling look into the terrors and drudgeries of the early American frontier. Saunders, trying to unravel a growing mystery in the capital that has imperiled his lost love, is supposed to impress us with his spycraft but instead takes us on what becomes a very long slog from tavern to government office to dining room and back again, over and over.

Nor is Liss able to really prod his characters to life. All of his good people favor all good things, in keeping with our contemporary sensibilities. They despise greed, tyranny, dishonesty, prevarication, anti-Semitism and racism even when -- in Saunders's case -- they own a slave. This is a common dilemma in historical fiction -- who wants a hero who, say, feels African Americans are inferior? -- but it is not a dilemma that Liss resolves. Saunders's brave, private-eye patter is often funny. Here he is taunting an antagonist with a beautiful wife:

"It cannot be easy to have convinced such a gem to marry a man of your stripe."

"She's a slut. . . ."

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