The Swill

Written by Michael Keenan Gutierrez
Review by Fiona Alison

Five years ago, Joshua Rivers returned to Port Kydd to take over The Swill, a grungy basement speakeasy owned by his Irish family for generations. He has few clients, no money, and no prospects.

Approaching the stock-market crash of 1929, Prohibition is in full-swing, but in Port Kydd it’s just an excuse for the cops to extort more. Joshua’s sister Olive spells nothing but trouble and has done since she was an unruly teenager, but with a $3000 incentive, Joshua agrees to abet a theft. Months later, he realizes Olive has double-crossed the man who hired her, and he is left with the fallout. The ultimatum from the police is to give her up or go down in her place.

Once a tough war veteran, Joshua just wants to be left in peace to care for his very pregnant wife. In a particularly brutal scene, his vulnerability and powerlessness cause his wife Lily to use unanticipated violence. Loyalty to family, friends, and neighbors stands front and center for Joshua, and he’s unwilling to throw his sister under the bus. In trying to set things straight he is shunned by his community, including Lily, who distances herself from the depravity she feels he has brought her to.

The focus here is family loyalty and the indelible imprint left by our heritage and our homes. The fictional Port Kydd is not a civilized place―so full of “poverty, governmental neglect, racism, anti-Papism, anti-Semitism” and bootlegging, it’s a soul-destroying character unto itself. The story portrays the interconnecting narratives of three families in 1873, and their descendants in 1929, who live with the violent feudal legacy left by their parents and grandparents. The author’s gritty, unapologetic exploration of how the white upper class maintains its superiority is compelling, and his observations are sharp and decisive. Highly recommended.