Historical revisionist Bruce Olds commits heinous acts against the English language in his sprawling, incoherent novel, The Moments Lost. At times impressive in scope and range, the narrative ultimately suffers and strangulates under the weight of the author’s use and abuse of alliterations and arcane verbs and nouns.
In his debut novel, Raising Holy Hell (1995), Olds presented a brilliant portrait of fabled abolitionist John Brown, uncovering a psychotic demagogue motivated by fiery religious zealotry.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday, the consumptive dentist turned gunfighter, came under Olds’ literary microscope in the lackluster Bucking the Tiger (2002), a work of fiction that often veered into a narrative style best rendered by Michael Ondaatje in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.
The Moments Lost attempts to recycle and reinvent another dark slice of Americana, taking the reader back in time to 1913 and the bloody copper mine strike in Northern Michigan as seen through the eyes of one Franklyn Shivs, a troubled Wisconsin farm boy. Young Shivs, an autodidact who can quote Flaubert and other masters like a literary-minded parrot, gives up the farm and travels to Chicago in 1900 seeking his fame and fortune as a newspaper wordslinger.
Turn-of-the-century Chicago is billed as “the wickedest city in the world … packed to the doors with all the riffraff of a thousand towns” and, boy, don’t we know it because Olds keeps the reader rooted in Chicago for 170 meandering pages before the 1913 copper mine uprising even bears relevance to the plot.
For a spell, Olds is traveling on fertile ground. He exposes the time warp continuum of history, drawing distinct parallels between our postmodern 9/11 world and the seismic upheavals of Chicago, circa 1900-13. This was a time of great catastrophes, such as the Iroquois Theater fire, witnessed by Shivs first-hand, which left 602 Christmas revelers dead. “Sodomite priests” are grabbing the headlines, Socialism is on the rise in answer to “the rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of management of industries into fewer and fewer hands”, and new forms of literature and art are emerging.
Olds explores this massive social change exhaustively and then ultimately loses his way like a blind man in a mall, straying and perambulating, issuing unwanted and unasked for meditations on the art of writing itself, pondering whether “a new language for the unspeakable” can be invented and musing pretentiously that “words create thought, not vice versa.”
It is indeed the author’s fetish for words that ultimately dooms The Moments Lost. Words like “adiaphorist” and “anabiotic” fly over the reader’s head like so many lobbed bricks. Alliterations (“the piped peeps of the peepers”) carelessly litter otherwise artful sentences. A careful reading of the following example amply exposes the dog-eared thesaurus lurking behind Olds’ words:
… certainly he never communicated the sense to his son, but then, he wasn’t the sort to share his counsel, or strut it, commend consolation, ignite debate or stroke it, proffer congratulation, talk sex, politics, business, or religion, cajole or gladhand, trade barbs or bon mots, josh around, or call his one and only affectionate names—horsefly, piss ant, buzz cut, bullethead, bucko, bucky, buckaroo, spike, spud, sluggo or stretch, slim or stubby, satchmo or socks, or sprat or sprout …
Alliterations and long-lost words serve no point except to break the reader away from what might otherwise be an engrossing moment. Watching Olds conduct linguistic handstands is an experience no Kafka-esque freak show can rival. It takes skill to write without cheap gimmicks and parlor tricks but Olds has forgotten this simple fact and revels in his assumed superiority with words.
The real moments lost in this near-500-page opus are the moments that comprise a narrative, a novel, a book, a literary text, a story or a tale, a written composition and an engrossing examination, a volume of many sheets bound together, words stitched and sewn to create a fabric, a mosaic, a tableau, a…well, you get the picture.