Readers unfamiliar with Robert Olmstead’s lyrical style will be delighted to discover this prolific and productive midwesterner’s work. In Far Bright Star (Thorndike Press, 279 pages ) the newest tale of the West, Olmstead weaves a minimalistic account of one man’s confrontation with his mortality and the deeper reaches of the human psyche.
Napoleon Childs is a noncommissioned officer in the U. S. Expeditionary Force sent into Mexico to get the sometimes bandit, sometimes revolutionary Pancho Villa. Detailed to scout for signs of the elusive Villistas, Napoleon leads a squad of green recruits and seasoned soldiers into the trackless Sonoran desert, where they are ambushed by a strange and savage band of independent outlaws. Led by a mysterious woman, the renegades are principally interested in Palmer, a trooper who has maimed a prostitute in the village where the army is bivouacked.
Napoleon, captured and tortured, is the lone survivor of the attack, left to make his way back to tell his story.
The experience alters Napoleon’s perception of the worth of human life and his role in the greater scheme of human endeavor. Confronted by his own mortality, he attempts to comprehend the meaning of his existence, and he struggles to connect the tragic events in Mexico with some great cosmic significance. Questions about memory’s role in human awareness and self-definition flit through Napoleon’s mind, making him question the reality of events he has witnessed. Ultimately, he must redefine values such as loyalty, courage and love, and he seeks to find them in here own heart.
Mystical overtones reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy at his best enlighten the prose, which is tautly written and laced with tension. The narrative voice remains quiet, almost ironic in recounting Napoleon’s horrific experience and metaphysical thoughts. Detail is sparse but selective and creates riveting visual effects.
Olmstead offers a sort of “thinking-reader’s” western. There are suggestion of influence by Richard Ford and Thomas McGuane, but there is no sense of imitation here. Verbal precision and historical accuracy combine with a poetic distillation of a tragic event presented in a solidly captivation reading experience that haunts the mind long after the final page is turned
–Clay Reynolds, author of Sandhill County Lines, 2007
Excerpt: Thus far the summer of 1916 had been a siege of wrathy wind and heated air. Dust and light. Sand and light. Wind and light.
There was drought and the land was parched and dry and the country bleached, burned out, and furnacelike. At first, dogs attended the troopers, but then they experienced a plague of fleas, so the order went out to shoot the dogs.
It was 125 miles south of the international line in Colonia Dublan where the expedition has established its headquarters. They were well suppled. They shipped in tons of material by rail, truck, and mule team and employed thousands of civilian workers. The cantinas and whorehouses were open all night long and the only hardship, other than being there, was riding out each day to patrol the dry dusty roads. They were in search of Pancho Villa and his bandits who on March 9 audaciously attacked Columbus, New Mexico, burning, looting, and killing and they’d been hunting him ever since.
But everywhere they went it was the same story. They just missed them a day ago, an hour ago, the next high valley, the next mountain peak, a cave that did not exist. By most measures the expedition had been a failure.
This review was originally published May 31, 2009 in The Dallas Morning News, reposted here by permission of the author