COAL BLACK HORSE
By Robert Olmstead
Algonquin. 218 pp. $23.95
To the steady drumbeat of powerful Civil War novels that continue to arrive, you must add Coal Black Horse. Here, distilled into just 200 pages, is the story of how a young man and a young nation lost their innocence. With his lush, incantatory voice, Robert Olmstead describes a boy thrust into one of the war's most horrific moments.
In the opening pages, 14-year-old Robey Childs is called into the house by his clairvoyant mother. It's May 1863, and she perceives that the Civil War has reached a crisis. "Go and find your father," she tells him, "and bring him back to his home." Their interest in the conflict is entirely nonpartisan. With a reversible blue/gray jacket and strict instructions to shoot first, Robey begins an arduous journey across territory rife with soldiers, gangs and refugees. In Hollywood parlance, this is Jim the Boy climbs Cold Mountain, and surely young stallions are already lining up to play Robey in the inevitable movie.
"He walked a shambling gait, his knees to and fro and his shoulders rocking," Olmstead writes. "His hands were already a man's hands, cut square, with tapering fingers, and his hair hung loose to his shoulders. He was a boy whose mature body would be taller yet and of late he'd been experiencing frightening spurts of growth. On one night alone he grew an entire inch and when morning came he felt stretched and his body ached and he cried out when he sat up."
A neighbor gives him the coal black horse of the title -- "an oncommon horse," Robey notes -- and he sets off toward the latest news of battle, stealing food when he's hungry and sleeping as little as possible. Almost all his encounters with others are disturbing or violent -- frequently both. He's captured by Union soldiers just before an attack by raiders, and from the first shot it's a spectacular scene, chaotic and deafening, striking for the sheer oddness of the ways in which people's bodies are torn apart in war. As he escapes, Robey sees "the men in blue where they'd been carted and strewn for burial and the sight of them was as eerie as drowned fish."
This is just a prelude to Gettysburg, where he hopes to find his father. We don't see the battle itself -- it's ended when Robey arrives -- but his experience of the aftermath will haunt anyone who reads these pages. Beyond the impact of so much death is the unimaginable horror of this vast field covered with men who are not yet dead, "men who lay on the bare ground, moaning and twitching fitfully, blubbering in wave and cadence. They were left wholly to themselves." Olmstead sweeps from the enormity of the battle to searing little moments, rendered in incongruous poetry: "A white horse, its forelegs shot off, lay on its side calmly cropping the tufted and trampled rye." In the heat of such carnage, despite his youth, Robey must find the courage to save those depending on him and kill those who would do him harm.
Coal Black Horse shares some apocalyptic similarities with Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and as with that chilling masterpiece, one almost hesitates to interrupt the chorus of praise that has already greeted this book to point out some annoying flaws. We might accept Robey's easy success at finding his father among 50,000 casualties, but that reunion is compounded by several more unlikely reunions, as though the whole state of Pennsylvania were reduced to half-a-dozen people.
More troubling are flashes of pretension that mar Olmstead's prose. The book's epigraph comes from Job, and the voice of God seems to keep butting in throughout the story. Even during gorgeous and moving passages, we have to stumble over declarations such as this: "They were a teaching father and a learning son, timeless in their existence, the father born into the son as is the grandfather and the father before him and all the way back to the first. The father's life is foreclosed and the son's life is continuing and as always, only the unknown privileging one state of being over the other." We're told of "lessons as old as the history of the sun." When his mother speaks, "Her words were as if come through time and she was an old mother and the ancient woman."
Coal Black Horse doesn't need these flourishes of profundity nor the harping on Robey's momentous transition from Boy to Man. The story conveys all this more powerfully than any of Olmstead's pronouncements. Like Robey, he should just keep it simple and trust his instincts. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.