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Review: Robert Olmstead's 'Far Bright Star' takes the reader on a 19th century journey

Robert Olmstead belongs to the cadre of contemporary writers who can translate nature's revelatory beauty into words.

In Olmstead's last novel, Coal Black Horse, Pennsylvania's Appalachian landscape provided "beautiful and isolate moments" to contrast the bedlam of the Civil War. In Far Bright Star, he again sends his main character on a journey though the elements. In these pages, however, the force to reckon with is "a godforsaken place" that isn't "the land of humidity and decomposition, but the place of the sun shriveled and the dried up."

Olmstead's story follows Napoleon Childs, an aging cavalryman chasing Pancho Villa in the summer of 1916. After Villa and his men brazenly attack a New Mexico town, Childs is sent into Mexico to hunt him down with a few dependable men and a band of privileged sons "who presumed lions in their blood, and having killed a trophy hall of wild animals, they were hunting their first man killing, preferably without much fall of their own blood."

But blood falls in torrents as Childs and his men encounter bandits who trap the cavalry in a world "bounded by a loom work of rock, steel, lead, and fire" that results in "sluicing blood, torn flesh, split bones, and concurrent explosions." Childs ends up abandoned in the desert, naked and empty-handed except for a .45 with a single chambered bullet.

His attempted odyssey back to base camp forms a riveting, cerebral story, made greater through Olmstead's haunting liturgical cadence. The author also conjures strange scenes of exquisite beauty in the way desert winds lift sand "higher and blew cursive serifs that wrapped their bodies and cut their faces," and the static sparks that bathe the men in light and leave them "blue and white and awed inside the storm."

Such moments give Far Bright Star clarity, allowing us to forget temporarily the violent storm sure to come.

Vikas Turakhia teaches English in Ohio.

Far Bright Star

By Robert

Algonquin, 224 pages, $23.95

Review: Robert Olmstead's 'Far Bright Star' takes the reader on a 19th century journey 06/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 26, 2009 5:28pm]
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