[20 August 2010]
Ever since the 1987 publication of River Dogs, Robert Olmstead’s fine debut collection of stories, he has limned the lives of solitary, often inarticulate men. Stories like “How to Bury a Dog” were the natural precursors to novels like A Trail of Heart’s Blood Wherever We Go as they unspooled a string of mostly rural, stoic and possibly none-too-bright protagonists. Now comes Far Bright Star, Olmstead’s seventh book of fiction and perhaps his finest work to date. It’s a terse, violent book, wrung dry of all excess and possessed of a kind of stark, horrible beauty.
The year is 1916. World War I rages overseas but the US isn’t a part of it, yet. Instead, the army is in Mexico, pursuing Pancho Villa in retaliation for the rebel leader’s daring raid against a New Mexico town. “Pursuit” in this case consists of sending small bands of armed men into the parched wilderness; army vets and trackers, Indians and braggarts, green young boys and crusty old men. The leader of one such band, Napoleon Childs, takes his squad into the unforgiving landscape and suffers a turn of events that can only be described as horrific. The experience leaves him profoundly changed.
Olmstead’s writing is spare to the point where not a single word appears unnecessary, but this does not mean his sentences are in thrall to Hemingway, all minimalism and repetition and single-syllable Anglo-Saxon words. Indeed his syntax can be lofty, almost Biblical at times, with cadences strongly reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, another contemporary writer who often explores the bloody forays of rough western men.
Of one man the narrator tells us, “He was in the first part of being young and comported himself as if immortal… He really was a boy and not a man. He was a boy grown up but still not a man.” Papa could have written those sentences.
Elsewhere, though, the wording grows more elaborate: “As they came on, his wildness flared inside him and the certitude that he should exist and his existence would not be taken away from him. The violence was not exciting to him but simple in calculation and fascinating in experience, and he knew he was ready and would soon enough experience the relief of conflict.” Before long we’re getting stuff like: “The moment was suspended as if a universal suspiration of all encompassed time and then his screams rose up and split the darkness and were piercing to hear as if unloosed was a bright dramatic and horrible pageantry.” That’s about as un-minimalist, un-Hemingwayesque, as you can get. Yet for all that, the rhythm of the words cuts to the bone with brutal directness.
The desert is a strong presence in the story, to the point where “the vast emptiness of the broken country” almost functions as another character. In fact the landscape is much more present in the story than are, say, women. This is a book about rough men doing rough things in rough surroundings. One or two female characters do appear, but fleetingly; one of them is the precipitator of the book’s central action, but hardly makes an impression for all that. Readers who are weary of male-centric storytelling, or who see this type of machismo as a glorification of violence, might wish to pass on this story.
In her critique of the Western genre, West of Everything, Jane Tompkins outlines a number of recurring tropes common to both films and books: suspicion of language, especially talk; dismissal of religion; scorn of women; elevation of landscape; love of horses. It’s unfair to ascribe these characteristics to the author of this book, but certainly the characters in Far Bright Star follow this template to a great degree.
Women are, as mentioned, off-screen. The one representative of organized religion who turns up is quickly shunted aside. Ironically for a book in which language is wielded with such grace and precision, Napoleon Childs exhibits a familiar suspicion of words, of talk and talkers and men who don’t know when to shut up. “Napoleon wanted this conversation over. He made it a rule to stay away from people who talked too much and this one was a talker.” John Wayne would agree with him, or Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin. Take your pick.
At a whisper over 200 pages, the novel moves fast and can be devoured in a couple of sittings. Notwithstanding the fine literary language, this is also an engrossing page-turner, particularly in the first half, with plenty plenty of simmering tension and explosive violence. Like E.L. Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times, it treats a popular and much-loved genre with originality and grace, plus an absolute lack of sentimentality. Most importantly, it’s a hell of a story told by a writer at the top of his game. Readers who value linguistic pyrotechnics and can stomach plenty of violence will find much to savor here.