By Sandra Dallas
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 30, 2009
FAR BRIGHT STAR
By Robert Olmstead
Algonquin. 207 pp. $23.95
It is 1916, and an expedition of American soldiers has been dispatched to Mexico in search of Pancho Villa. They are a sorry lot -- "freebooters, felons, Christians, drifters, patriots . . . surgeons, mechanics, assassins," writes Robert Olmstead at the opening of this intense, short novel. "They claimed to be marksmen and veterans of battles no one ever heard of. . . . They [are] the future dead."
The soldiers have their own reasons for being in Mexico. The expedition is "a stage for so many men to play out their ambitions and imaginations," observes their leader, a laconic veteran named Napoleon. (Don't be so quick to laugh at his name; his brother is Xenophon.) Only one other soldier, called Extra Billy, is seasoned. The others are greenhorns, men Napoleon wouldn't choose for battle, men like Preston, who is educated but arrogant and wants to add a human being to his list of animal kills. They are the luck of the draw for Napoleon, who must lead them into the harsh Mexican desert, into a land hardened by the sun, into an ambush that most of them will not survive.
Napoleon and Extra Billy see the signs that something isn't right, but preparing the men for battle, Napoleon doesn't tell them they are second-raters. "I wouldn't have no other company for it, not for all the tea in China," he reassures them as they are about to be overwhelmed by an enemy he doesn't recognize. The foes who trap them are not Villa's people, but who are they? A ragtag band of guerrillas? Sly villagers who mix with the expedition in camp and then stalk the Americans in the desert?
Whoever they are, they slaughter almost all the ambushed troopers. Napoleon is stripped naked and left to die in the searing rays of the sun. His tongue swollen, his feet shredded by rocks and cactuses, he struggles to survive with only his hat and a gun. "I must live . . . I still think I can and I still think there is a reason to," he tells himself. "I'd rather not go just yet," he says to the stranger who appears in a hallucination.
In his crazed state, he ponders the viciousness of the attack, making no sense of it beyond the wickedness of men. He remembers past battles from the Indian wars to the Philippines and a career as a warrior. He recalls his boyhood and wonders whether it all has been worthwhile. Nonetheless, "for all the horror of this world it was still his own and he was not done and he'd not give himself over," Olmstead tells us. So Napoleon stumbles on, not knowing reality from delusion, not sure if he is alive or dead.
"Far Bright Star" makes the reader bleed with the characters and sweat with the intensity of the sun. The unexplained evil and the cheapness of life are offset by the humanity and dignity of both Napoleon and Xenophon. There is a bond between these two men, set in boyhood. And of course, there is a bond between Napoleon and his horse. After all, Olmstead is the author of that moving tribute to equine loyalty, "Coal Black Horse."
In this, his seventh book, Olmstead writes with a gritty style as sparse as the landscape itself:
"It's surely gonna be hot today," says one of the soldiers to another.
"Don't talk about it."
"It's gonna be hot enough to put hell out of business."
"What'd I say?"
And Olmstead's humor is as dry as the sunbaked land, too. Early in the book, Napoleon rescues an old man suffering from sun, starvation and an infected finger that has to be cut off. Before the crude surgery, the soldier shares a can of tuna fish with the old coot, who asks, "Do you have any coconut pie?" Such moments of levity grace a dark story filled with harshness and brutality. As good as that story is, however, it's Olmstead's knife-edge paring of words that makes "Far Bright Star" such a fine work of fiction.
Dallas's most recent novel is "Prayers for Sale."