Robert Olmstead’s new novel demonstrates Robert E. Lee’s maxim: “It is well that war is so horrible, or we would grow to love it too much.”
In Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, a sage vaquero tells our protagonist that “no man who has not gone to war on horseback can ever truly understand the horse.” The first installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy does not test the legitimacy of this equine maxim, but Robert Olmstead’s latest novel, the unapologetically McCarthy-esque Far Bright Star, seems to set for itself precisely that task.
Far Bright Star is a sequel, of sorts, to Olmstead’s prizewinning Coal Black Horse (2007), both novels dealing extensively with horses and war. While Coal Black Horse relates a young man’s coming-of-age during the Civil War, Olmstead’s latest is set in 1916 Mexico, where adventure-seeking Americans have drifted south of the border to hunt for Pancho Villa and his band of rebels. One such is our novel’s protagonist, a seasoned veteran named Napoleon, who leads an ill-fated sortie into the desert with a small band of would-be warriors.
As meticulously researched and evocative as a historical novel could be, Far Bright Star is about war of a very particular brand, the old-world physical combat that seems, in our era of the asymmetrical battlefield, like a thing from another millennium—reading this novel we see how the very nature of war has morphed, not just its accoutrements. There are no Predator drones, no JDAMs or laser-guided bombs: The combat Olmstead depicts is personal, and he allows the story he’s telling to reinforce this depiction organically. The physicality of combat is wondrously strange and fascinating:
His guts twisted. He knew he was dead and was wondering what death would be like when the Rattler horse, lithe as a cat, lurched onto its front feet, stretched out with its long neck and head and took the man’s whole face in its wide mouth. The bite swallowed whatever cry there might have been. It tore away the man’s nose and cheek meat, his lips and mustache and his eyebrows and all the skin and meat that was the man’s face.
Personal. Even more impressive is that the novel slows down to focus on one engagement, capturing the fallout of a battle that feels and sounds and looks very real.
But certain aspects of conflict don’t change, and what Olmstead’s characters set out to confront is not what they will end up confronting, and the reason for the novel’s major battle will not end up being what they—or we—first thought. However the technology changes, “the fog of war,” the complexity of conflict that obscures everyone’s vision when they undertake this disastrous enterprise, remains.
Olmstead’s achievement is all the more striking given the setting and time and the way in which the author conjures (sometimes through detail, sometimes through rhythm and cadence) the atmosphere of Mexico in the early 20th century. We stay close to Napoleon via a narration which, like those of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian, makes of its telling a war-song. The prose (and prose poetry) of Far Bright Star achieves the lyrical minimalism of Melville and Faulkner, tempered by the muted precision of Hemingway. It doesn’t get away from Olmstead the way it so easily could, and the way it often does with writers working in this tradition.
The United States’ involvement in the hunt for Pancho Villa was the last affair in which horses were used extensively as a combat technology. Soon after, we entered the fray in Europe and leapt into a very different kind of fighting, one that didn’t allow for mounted troops, one fought in trenches and the modernist nightmare of No Man’s Land. It is on this note that Olmstead ends his novel with an extended passage as moving as anything in recent American fiction, in which our protagonist meditates on the war in Europe and the inevitability of his going to meet it.
In the end, we are left with a question: If the vaquero of All the Pretty Horses is correct that we can’t understand horses without warfare, can we then understand warfare without the horse? Put differently, in thinking of the wars we are presently waging, wars we watch on CNN like reality shows, in which technology has fundamentally changed the way we fight and the way we think about fighting, what have we lost and what have we gained? This is the strange and fascinating ambivalence of Far Bright Star and what, ultimately, makes it a great work of art: We feel the passion of war and all the primal urges it evokes, even as we are repulsed by it. Olmstead does a remarkable job of dramatizing a truth given voice by General Robert E. Lee. “It is well,” he said, “that war is so horrible, or we would grow to love it too much.”