Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Robert Olmstead, Far Bright Star

As I read this book, I thought of the many pulp fans and writers getting their “education” here in the blogs. Olmstead uses the dark material of pulp fiction and remixes it as chilling poetry. Think of a meeting between Jim Thompson and Ambrose Bierce.

Set during the Mexican Revolution in 1916, the novel centers on a detail of mounted American soldiers in northern Mexico. Once again the U.S. Army is in full force south of the border. This time they are after Pancho Villa, following the rebel leader’s nasty cross-border raid in Columbus, New Mexico (which you can read about here).

At the opposite end of the spectrum from flash fiction, Olmstead writes with the deliberate patience of a raptor waiting for a kill. The slow unfolding of the story reflects first the stifling heat under the desert sun and the blinding boredom of the soldiers’ routine – then the moment by moment grisly fate that awaits them.

Pancho Villa Expedition, infantry columns, 1917
Plot. In the single day that much of the novel takes place, Napoleon Childs is the commanding officer of a detail of mostly inexperienced men. Their job is to find and kill a half dozen wild cattle to be slaughtered for Army rations.

Childs is as hard-boiled as they come. He knows nothing but the life of a career soldier and has an easy contempt for any man whose courage is less dependable than tempered steel. He’s well aware that there are few men like himself. The one exception is his brother, who serves with him. The bond between them is one of blood, muscle, and undying loyalty.

On the day in question, it is Napoleon’s luck that the men under his command include three unseasoned and poorly disciplined men. Only one other is a hardened soldier he can count on. The fifth is no more than a boy.

Far from camp, they discover that they are being surrounded by enemy, and after a long pursuit through a whirling sandstorm, the men make a stand in a canyon. The violence that ensues is described at the same slow-motion pace, and it is horrific. You soon get your fill of it, and yet it is far from over.

Napoleon is taken captive, fully expecting to die in an ordeal of humiliation and torture. And rest assured, I’m glossing over the details. Olmstead’s is an imaginative world of extremes, yet thoroughly grounded in this one. It is pulp fiction with real rather than stylized violence.

Pancho Villa Expedition, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1916
Character. Like much western fiction, this novel is a study and a portrayal of character. Olmstead’s interest in Napoleon has to do with how much a fiercely strong-willed man can take before he breaks.

And the challenge is to do this while keeping him more human than heroic. So he never dissolves into the mythical. In these days of returning combat veterans, many of them with PTSD, he is a man you could actually pass on the street.

As other western writers have speculated, this kind of man is not someone you’d really want to buddy up to. Even if you could. While deeply wounded beneath his steely surface, he deals with pain by denying it. To get close to him, you would have to be haunted, as he is, by needless death and the blood-soaked earth.

It is the dead, in fact, who come to him in dreams. Dead men and dead horses. I’d say it’s a world without women, except that Olmstead includes them at rare moments and in disturbing ways, both as victims and perpetrators of violence.

U.S. infantry, south of Columbus, NM, 1916
Style.  Like James Salter (Solo Faces, The Hunters), Olmstead is a writer’s writer. You can marvel on nearly every page at the breathless use of language. You find words in unexpected combinations. Familiar words used with meanings that are not in any dictionary. Words you’re sure you’ve never seen before. Some sentences take a moment to sink in, evoking a feeling you recognize but have no term for. Olmstead’s gift is an ardent love of the simple power of language.

You can skim read for the plot, which I wouldn’t recommend. The pace reminds me of those Bill Viola videos that mesmerize by expanding minutes into an hour. The result is an intensifying of the passing moment and a discovery of drama in stillness. You don't want to miss that.

At times, there is also a lightness in the wry conversation between Napoleon and his brother. Paper-thin banter, it covers the explosive rage each is capable of and the memory of horrors both have become inured to.

Scarcely more than 200 pages, Far Bright Star is a work of substance. It should stand as a mark of pride for all writers, that such can be achieved with mere words. It’s available at amazon and AbeBooks.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Frederick R. Bechdolt, The Hard Rock Man (1910)


  1. I recently read this book also and liked it alot. I understand what you are saying when you refer to the author using the "...dark material of pulp fiction..." especially because of the violence and action. But I see it as more of a hard driving, "literary" success. In fact, I was so impressed I'm going to read another novel by Olmstead, COAL BLACK HORSE.

    Speaking of horses, the author really makes the horses come alive in the narrative. In fact Napoleon's brother loves horses more than the men he commands. I like how many of the troopers are portrayed as poor soldiers, not worth much. That's what I discovered during my short time in the military. Many men are simply killing time, trying to survive until their discharge. They could care less about goals and military objectives.

    A very impressive novel and Olmstead looks like an outstanding author.

  2. Jim Thompson and Ambrose Bierce. Now that is a tantilizing description.

  3. Walker, I would give COAL BLACK HORSE a read for sure. Glad to find someone else who enjoyed this novel. You are right about the horses; the two brothers have more respect for them than other soldiers.

    Charles, it may have been Paul Powers story in BTAP#1 that made me think of that connection.