Saturday, February 23, 2013

Depths and heights: Robert Olmstead's COAL BLACK HORSE

On the back cover of Robert Olmstead's 2007 Civil War novel, Coal Black Horse, author Richard Ford refers to the book as a "fable." This may seem nitpicky, but I think it's important to challenge that description in order to get at the kind of tale Olmstead has actually told.

Technically, a fable involves anthropomorphized animals. (Orwell labels Animal Farm "a fable," but he's being cheeky, since it's more of an allegory, given its particular historical referents.) This book is no fable, but the use of that term made me wonder whether some other familiar term would fit. The story of a boy who sets out, at his mother's oracular insistence, to fetch his father back from the war, the novel unreels increasingly brutal horrors before our formerly innocent protagonist, who, by the end, has certainly been altered, in ways necessary if not virtuous. Is it a "parable"? Arguably, though a parable ought to contain a moral lesson, and I think Olmstead means to resist anything transparently informative; still, a parable could also be viewed as a story that tells us something about "the way things truly are," so perhaps that'll do. Robie, the young boy, does discover how the world moves and the frailty—physical and moral—of the people who move upon it. I think the book may also be a "fairy tale," for though it lacks supernatural beings, the boy resembles those innocents who set off at the start of a story only to find the world changed from what they thought it to be; additionally, against all reason, the boy (and the titular horse) manage to not get themselves killed, the boy certain early on that he'll live to tell this tale, and the charm that encompasses boy and horse as they journey out and back seems lifted from a story of the fantastic. Fairy tales too, though typically told to the young, often contain no moral beyond "Beware."

It occurs to me, while writing this, that the book may rather intentionally follow the pattern of Dante's descent into hell. Each circle Robie enters, each new encounter, exposes him to some new human horror, and surely the scavengers, both men and beast, moving among the fields of the dead at Gettysburg resemble the demons doing Lucifer's work in the deeper pits of the Inferno. Early on, it becomes evident that Robie is following a downward path in a story that can only get worse as it proceeds. (So when he returns home at the end, still with his guide, is he now in Purgatorio, the next stage of Dante's journey, a place of suffering that is, however, not utterly without hope?)

As with Olmstead's Far Bright Star, which I read in 2009, the novel is densely poetic, most tremendously during times of great violence. This can get confusing, as the complex syntax and use of abstruse language sometimes work against clarity; the result, though, is to slow down the violence, so that no matter how swiftly it comes, the impression is of something momentous and drawn out. Olmstead's vocabulary is rich, and he had me reaching for the dictionary at least a dozen times; he also uses words creatively, constructing adjectives and verbs from other parts of speech. Even so, the book reads smoothly; it's beautiful writing that's carried along, in the manner of Cormac McCarthy, by a narrative voice like God's from the whirlwind . . . or like Lear's into the storm.

The language is rich with nouns, with words having to do with the earth, growing things, parts of horses and human bodies; even as the narrative plunges into the depths of human suffering, the language transcends by refusing to transcend, refusing to leave behind mortal things. The boy's eyes reach upward, too, seeing stars and constellations, watching birds and changing skies, but the boy sees things for what they are and does not see signs of another, better world. The story is a grim one, and the protagonist at times participates in the grimness, but he also works to bring coherence and peace to this shattered world, which is just what Olmstead's writing achieves.

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