Saddle up and check your ammunition. Robert Olen Butler is ready to take you to The Hot Country — Mexico in 1914, in the midst of civil war, with U.S. Marines in Vera Cruz and a German ship full of arms in its harbor, and out to the west, beyond mountains and desert, Pancho Villa and his army waiting.
Your compadre is Christopher Marlowe "Kit" Cobb, a dashing war correspondent for a Chicago paper. But let him introduce himself, as the novel opens:
"Bunky Millerman caught me from behind on the first day of Woody Wilson's little escapade in Vera Cruz. Bunky and his Kodak and I had gone down south of the border a couple of weeks earlier for the Post-Express and the whole syndicate. I'd been promised an interview with the tin-pot General Huerta who was running the country. He had his hands full with Zapata and Villa and Carranza, and by the time I got there, el Presidente was no longer in the mood to see the American press. I was ready to beat it back north, but then the Muse of Reporters shucked off her diaphanous gown for me and made the local commandant in Tampico, on the Gulf Coast, go a little mad."
Cobb is a little Ernest Hemingway (if Hem didn't take himself so seriously), a little Indiana Jones, a bit of James Bond and a whole lot of fun.
Butler, a longtime professor of creative writing at Florida State University, has experimented widely and playfully in his 18 works of fiction. He has based short story collections on tabloid headlines (Tabloid Dreams), postcards (Had a Good Time), couples' thoughts during the act of sex (Intercourse) and the brief reflections of the beheaded (Severance). He has written novels about a woman married to a space alien (Mr. Spaceman) and about people gone to their, um, reward (Hell).
He won a Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a collection of realistic stories set during and after the Vietnam War. In The Hot Country, he returns to the field of war and adopts a most traditional form, the historical novel — but he does it with brio, originality and a wicked sense of humor.
Cobb, a veteran war reporter, is in Vera Cruz to cover what looks like a U.S. invasion of its southern neighbor, which has been politically unstable for several years. But the invasion goes no farther than the city's streets and zocalos, so the intrepid Cobb goes looking for reasons why.
Butler captures with vivid detail what a reporter's work entailed a century ago, with no electronic media to smooth research and make contacts. If Cobb wants to interview someone, he has to track the person down and talk face to face. If he needs a document, there is only the paper version — and probably only one of those. And his version of "cable news" is writing his stories a few sentences at a time on telegraph forms (and hoping they aren't censored before they cross the border).
Cobb's sources are many and intriguing. There's Bob Smith, a.k.a. Tallahassee Slim, a soldier of fortune of whom Cobb cracks, "One thing I'd learned filling cable blanks from various tierras calientes for a few years already was to listen to anybody with live ammunition who called himself 'Slim.' "
Then there is Gerhard Vogel, a musician in a German band playing a gig in Vera Cruz, whose connections to his native land and to the United States are complex. Cobb also has his eye on a man named Mensinger, who travels from that German ship to the country's consulate in town — in the dead of night. Most mysterious of all is the pretty young woman assigned to wash Cobb's laundry at his hotel. Her name is Luisa Morales, her tongue is sharp, and her aim is true.
Butler also mixes in encounters with historical figures, like Gen. Fred Funston, "famous for bragging, after he made his mark as a general in the Philippines, that he personally strung up three dozen Filipinos without trial and he suggested we do the same with all the Americans who had petitioned Congress to sue for peace in the Far East."
When the cynical Funston meets with reporters, he says, "Not from my mouth, boys, but you can find the President on the recent record saying how the Mexicans would certainly welcome us with open arms if we ever intervened. How they'd all understand that we were actually saving them from their latest tyrant. How in no time at all they'd create their own little old democracy down here and be grateful to us for giving them the chance." Some things, it seems, don't change much.
Cobb's quest for the scoop will take him deep into Mexico and, eventually, right into the caboose that is Pancho Villa's traveling headquarters. He'll have to rely on his wits, his courage and his lifelong knowledge of acting techniques, learned at the knee of his mother, stage star Isabel Cobb, who is off having her own mysterious adventure in New Orleans (and worrying her son to distraction with cables cobbled from enigmatic quotes from Shakespeare and Cobb's namesake, playwright Christopher Marlowe, known for his revenge dramas).
Butler writes thrilling battle scenes, cracking dialogue and evocative description, and the plot of The Hot Country keeps twisting to the very end. What carries everything along at a breakneck pace is Cobb's narrative voice, which can range from cool wisecracks to passionate emotion and remain convincing.
The Hot Country's cover bears a banner declaring it "A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller." I was glad to see that at the end of the story, Butler leaves the possibility of Cobb's return swinging open like the double doors to a Vera Cruz cantina.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.