Far Bright Star.
by Robert Olmstead
Robert Olmstead's Far Bright Star is a stunning and savage novel, an uncompromising look at the irrationality and sad inevitability of war. Set during the Mexican Revolution, the book follows a group of inexperienced American soldiers--led by veteran cavalryman and protagonist Napoleon Childs--who've crossed into Mexico as part of the Punitive Expedition, in search of the elusive Pancho Villa. The mission seems all but lost, like hunting a ghost, with their target always just ahead of them and out of reach. For the seasoned Napoleon, the interminable nature of the search speaks to the unrelenting cycles of war: sooner or later, he knows, this conflict will be finished, at which time he and his men will simply "move on to another country, another war." It's this overwhelming sense of knowing and resignation that guides the book's opening pages and its reserved, meditative prose. For the men in Napoleon's party, however, barely more than boys and holding on to romantic notions that the expedition might be high adventure, "a stage ... to play out their ambitions and imaginations," the constant march begins to take its toll, leaving them frustrated and increasingly harried. Napoleon's burden, he understands, isn't simply to search for Villa but to protect his men from their reckless selves, to "teach them how not to get killed by their own irresponsible behavior." It doesn't work.
When the first blood is spilled, it comes not on the battlefield but at an overnight stop in a cantina town, where one of the men, the quick-tempered, effete Preston, takes a blade to a prostitute in a meaningless assault. But Olmstead is a fine tragedian and knows such transgression can't go unredressed, and it's not long afterward, out in the merciless Mexican desert, that Napoleon's men realize they are being trailed, and then trapped, by an unknown enemy. When the two forces finally come into conflict, with the hotheaded Preston firing a kill shot against orders that seals his cavalry's fate, the book takes an audacious turn, and what had been a restrained, ruminative narrative erupts into a second act of such unrelenting violence that the reader is almost compelled to turn away. It's important, however, that we don't.
Olmstead has received much praise for his depictions of natural and historical worlds which no longer fully exist, except on the page (including the lush Appalachia of his Civil War novel Coal Black Horse, the direct forebear of this book). And certainly the same can be said for the dry and dusty Mexican terrain, circa 1916, in this story ... an unforgiving, sun-bleached world which evokes the tropes of the Western without ever quite fulfilling them. But Olmstead's target here is not a world removed from ours. In fact, the brutality we see in the dark heart of the novel--when Napoleon and Preston, the only two survivors of the initial battle, are taken to the bandits' camp and sadistically tortured, described in passages almost unbearable to read--might be easier to take if the reader could safely ascribe them to some primitive, long-extinct past. But we can't, and we shouldn't, as even a passing glance at the evening news would confirm. What makes these passages, and Olmstead's larger thematic aims, so harrowing is the thought that, in spite of progress and modernity, our base instincts toward violence, cruelty and warfare persist. Olmstead makes this point clear even in his selection of the novel's timeframe: on the faultline between a mode of fighting, the horse cavalry, on its way out, and the depersonalized, mass-destruction conflicts inaugurated by the Great War, already rumbling overseas and of which Napoleon's men speak in awe "as if new God."
When the torture of Napoleon and Preston finally ends--with Preston eventually, but in no way mercifully, killed and Napoleon left in the desert to live or die--the silence that descends upon the book is far more grim than that which began it. The barely-conscious Napoleon, fighting for his life, bears a moment of bleak epiphany: "He knew there would be more war because he knew by law of nature men would to war. All the young men were on fire to cross the ocean and fight. They were bloodthirsty for the blood that was not their own. Like little boys, they would have it and the old men would let them have it and it would turn out widows and orphans and heartbroken mothers.... After the war was before the war."
One mystery never fully resolved is who the bandits that set upon the cavalrymen really are, though there is evidence to suggest they are mercenaries hired to exact revenge on Preston for his attack on the prostitute. But the identity of the bandits--their names and their cause--is of no real importance. Change the names, change the cause, and the result remains the same: "We murder them or they murder us." In this sense Far Bright Star is a bleak and brilliant novel not about the high human cost of a single battle but the high human cost of all of them.