Robert Olmstead is one of American literature’s big guns. Since his first collection of stories, 1987’s River Dogs, Olmstead has shown the versatility of his interests and subject matter—from short tales of contemporary rural and blue-collar workers to historical novels like 2007’s Civil War story Coal Black Horse and 2009’s Far Bright Star. Along the way he’s amassed his share of awards and prizes, among them a Guggenheim fellowship and NEA grant. With a reserved, laconic style that relies heavily on simple declarative sentences and striking imagery, Olmstead’s voice is at times reminiscent of fellow superstar Cormac McCarthy, although somewhat less bleak.
In his most recent offering, Olmstead turns again to history—this time, the Korean War era of the early ‘50s. The Coldest Night is the story of Henry Childs, perhaps a descendent of Coal Black Horse‘s protagonist, Robey Childs, though this is never made explicit. Henry is a rural working class lad and stable hand who gets involved in a romance with a young woman named Mercy, who occupies a social position far above his own. After a whirlwind courtship that goes from casual to carnal in a matter of days (or so it seems, at least), Henry is intercepted by Mercy’s family and told in no uncertain terms that he needs to disappear. When Mercy is all but abducted by the men in her family, Henry faces limited options to mend his broken heart.
That’s act one. Act two takes place in the mountainous front lines of the Korean War, where Henry has been mobilized to the heart of a rolling battle across a frozen wasteland of scarred mountains and frozen lakes. The experience, as one would expect is harrowing, all the more so because of the author’s powerful, evocative writing. This is the heart of the novel, both structurally and thematically, and Olmstead has set himself a difficult task: to convey the horrors of war in a way that is convincing to the reader while also making significant impact on the character of Henry Childs. It’s to his credit that the author succeeds so well. War is never an easy thing to write about, but Olmstead powerfully conveys the particular extremes of this situation.
In the final third of the book, Henry returns to civilian life, making his way back home to what remains of his family—and, the reader presumes, to a possible reunion with Mercy. Whether or not that reunion occurs is a question that drives this final part of the narrative, and is likely the hook that will most obviously engage the reader’s interest, but there is more to the novel than that. Henry is barely a boy when he goes to war and still hardly more than that when he returns; yet he has been changed by the experience, and not for the better. Watching him cope with the horrors he has lived through is a source of both sadness and fascination for the reader.
The ultimate resolution of the plot questions is taken care of surprisingly and satisfactorily, as one would expect from a writer of Olmstead’s stature. Just as interesting, though, are the questions of what will happen to Henry next as he makes his way back into civilian society. The novel avoids pat answers but ends with a strong emotional kick that matches the intensity of the previous sections, and which feels entirely earned.
Throughout, Olmstead’s writing delivers the goods with a low-key style that avoids flash but carries a kind of edgy gravitas that carries a hint of ironic detachment. There is a certain formality to the diction, as well. Of Henry’s mother, we are told that “She did not so much live within her being but occupied it the way one holds to a strange land with unpredictable weather.” Elsewhere, some nameless place is described: “It was an old city and worn out and as if built for some future that came by but did not stop for long.” And in the midst of a brutal battle, these almost musical cadences: “The men did not look human after war’s subtraction: no eye, no ear, no nose, no face, no arm, no leg, no gut, no bowel, no bone no spine, no muscle, no nerve, no breath, no heart, no brain, no faith.”
Such writing is powerful stuff, and could make even an ordinary story compelling. This story is far from ordinary, however. Given the huge numbers of numbed and broken veterans returning from our own, present-day wars, Henry Childs is a character who resonates all too much with contemporary times.
Readers seeking a powerful story and compelling writing would do well to seek out Olmstead’s work. Newcomers are apt to be impressed by his no-nonsense style, while those already familiar with his writing will be happy to see that this novel continues the fine run of work that dates back now more than two and a half decades.