Olmstead, Robert (2008), Coal Black Horse, Algonquin
First and foremost, Coal Black Horse is a beautiful book. It’s smart, fascinating, complex, but above all, especially in the first half, it’s beautiful. I admit I have never heard of Olmstead before, although he won several prizes and authored an oeuvre that gained him the respect and praise of writers as famous and talented as Richard Ford, but I’m glad I chanced upon Coal Black Horse, his fourth novel, set in the American Civil War. The reader enters the book and follows Olmstead’s protagonist as if through an enchanted wood, but at the same time he is led through the waste land of American History. The novel makes judicious use of both registers, with allusions and references all over the board, playing with genres without ever developing a postmodern ironic distance. Coal Black Horse is a serious book, and is using tradition in order to gain more precision without losing the traction, the pull of traditional narratives. It’s my first novel by Olmstead , who appears to be a fine writer, and I urge everyone to read it. If you give the book the attention it deserves, it’ll take you away to a strange country, which is at once part of common history and part of a small, personal history, which is both about one boy’s coming of age, and about a nation’s. Olmstead is a bit of a narcissist, he knows he’s good, and he knows what he can do, and this leads to passages and story-lines that are just a bit too much of a good thing. In a few places, Coal Black Horse reads like a debut novel, by an enormously talented, but impatient young writer, who wants to serve up his delicious dishes as soon as possible, but who threatens to overwhelm his guests. However, his successes clearly outweigh his failures in this, his fourth novel, making it an intriguing and engrossing read.
This is true despite the fact that it seems possible to level charges at Olmstead for merely riding the coattails of the traditions he writes in, for only using topics and themes that have been used ad nauseam in American fiction, and which, moreover, seem to lend themselves suspiciously easily to ‘deep’ literature. If we only look at obvious markers of genre, Coal Black Horse, the story of a boy, Robey, leaving his home to bring his father, a soldier in the Confederate army, back home, is either a coming of age tale, or a American Civil War novel; Olmstead makes much use of the sentimental possibilities, especially with regard to pathos, that both of these genres offer. As we experience emotional upheavals in the book it’s natural to wonder how much of that is due to Olmstead’s craft, and how much is created by the competent use of common tropes of the genres, and especially the setting, with the attendant props. The horror of dead people, the sadness of losing a father, finding him and losing him again, the prickling of a first love: reading experience tells us that you don’t have to be a talented or smart writer to (re)create these for your audience. A sad example of this is the public (and sometimes even critical) reaction to John Boyne‘s atrocious and irresponsible soi-disant “fable” about the Shoah (another topic that can make it “easy” for the writer), and it’s seductive to shelve Olmstead, who didn’t opt for an innovative point of view (like Alan Gurganus), or attempt to implode the genre from within (like I think McCarthy does with Blood Meridian), with Boyne, but that would be a mistake. Olmstead is a better writer than that, and while he certainly relies a lot on what’s basically prefabricated emotion, the true strength of Coal Black Horse is not in its setting or the genres it aligns itself with.
Instead, Olmstead uses what I read as a fairy tale kind of mood for the whole book. Part of this may be due to saddling the story with a 14 year old boy as protagonist, who isn’t interested in politics, and wanders through the Civil War waste land like Candide. Unlike Boyne’s book which uses a similar focus to deflate the political and historical context of its setting, opting instead for a bloodlessly generalized statement, Olmstead’s never abdicates his responsibility to his material. By de-emphasizing some political aspects, he gains enough perspective to take on a broader, but not a jot less politically and historically incisive, point of view. And if we take a closer look, it turns out that Robey’s observations are strange and surreal with or without an immediate understanding of the politics of his time. As he visits a smithy, where the kind resident smith gives him the titular hoofed mammal, he sees one of the smithy’s workers and describes him thus:
A boy, not much younger than himself, was walking across the porch floor on his hands, the unhitched galluses of his denim overalls clicking across the boards. An upside-down pocket was sewn into his pant’s leg and stems of black licorice sprang from it.
Without denying the existence of boys walking on their hands, passages like this one tell us that this is not a strictly realist novel. Towards the end, the book contains a plethora of accidental meetings that strain one’s credulity, and presents scenes saturated with symbolic significance rather than sober realism. In a historical novel, these are odd elements; this is one of many examples demonstrating the book’s indifference to historical precision. Indifference may not be the right word maybe resistance is a better word, resistance to cheap historical folklore, often marked by “authentic” dialect. There isn’t any of that in Coal Black Horse, which only contains deviations that mark one character’s low level of education. Real, actual historical places play a very small role. Gettysburg is named, true enough, but as Robey follows the Confederates, trying to reach his father as soon as possible, any other possible points of reference are glossed over, smudged, by referring to written accounts and records, such as Newspaper articles, as mere accumulations of rumor and sensationalism. Robey drifts along more than he pursues a set path, and it’s the horse, more often than not, that is smarter than he is.
The horse is a curious character. It turns up at one point of the story, leaves a few chapters later, and alights again still later in the book. It’s very strong-willed, and much smarter (street-smart, you might say) than Robey as he sets out on his journey:
He was alone with the horse and as he studied it, he understood the horse to be making decisions about him, as well. He’d not known such a horse as this had ever been made and could not help but feel inferior to the animal.
Associations to Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty are bound to arise. While Sewell’s horse is “bright black”, its intelligence, its understanding of its environment, and the lessons it teaches its readers with regard to cruelty and violence are all apt points of comparison here. We never ‘hear’ the horse in Olmstead’s book, but while Sewell postulates a respect towards animals, implicitly urges her readers to see animals as being like human beings, and deserving of the same esteem and care, Olmstead’s protagonist has already implemented these lessons. Although there is a limit to the similarities, the association with a book conceived for adults but also read by kids (mostly kids, now) is fitting in a book that works so much with the images and language of children’s literature.
There is, for example, as already mentioned, the fairy tale mood that much of the book has and which leads the reader to view the coal black horse in a similar light. It is a kind of silent guide, but it also means danger and has little to do with Robey’s growing up, learning about life’s hard lessons, it’s like a ghost, fading into the background some times, becoming more obvious at others, it’s accompanying the protagonist, nudging him in the right direction but leaving him the choice to go down the right road of his own will and accord. The coming-of-age-tale aspect of the novel isn’t the Salinger kind, with a young, jaded protagonist calling all grownups “phoneys”. This is more the Grimm’s Tales kind, a boy, thrown into a strange adventure, who’s struck with bewilderment, horror and wonder by the world around him.
He […] held a boy’s fascination for how light penetrates darkness, how water freezes and ice melts, how life could not be all and all at once. How some things last for years without ever existing.
In the course of the book the experiences and witnessed violence and its lessons shape Robey’s future life, and within weeks, he has lost his innocence. Insecurities and possibilities will have coagulated into sureness, conviction and necessity. Small men, dressed in women’s clothes, awash in lice, who cook gorgeous meals and steal your horses used to be encountered with surprise, but the older Robey will shoot before asking, because it’s survival and that’s what you do. The aftermath of one of western history’s bloodiest wars leaves an emotional desert, and fairy tale oddities have turned into dark symbols. In the black last pages of the book, we find that a boy’s coming of age tale has turned into a nation’s. And it is the way that this aspect of the book unfolds, not by engaging history, but by evoking an ahistorical, devastated landscape, and the arid landscape of a soul darkened by violence and loss, that moves Coal Black Horse close to the genre of post-apocalyptic novels.
I have been reading and rereading lots of post-apocalyptic novels recently, with a handful more to come (including Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood which sounds wonderfully irresistible). One thing is remarkable especially about the American variety of the genre: the closeness of its images and tropes to literature of and about the American Civil War, or about even earlier periods of American history. Even in middling achievements like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or, worse, in Marcel Theroux’ Far North, post-apocalyptic tales appear to be less a criticism of how things will turn out to be, as a reminder of the cultural roots of our contemporary American society, of the basic elements in place in its structure and reasoning. Creating their future by taking stock of our known world and subtracting comforts and of popular monuments of consumerism from it, many of these writers manage to remind their readers upon which foundations (and illusions) their society is built. Granted, all post-apocalyptic novels do something like that, but the interesting point here is the connection to American history. These books make a specific point about the promise and problems inherent in the American premise, which is often worshiped in the form of an ideal.
The evocation of “American energy, initiative and freedom“ (to quote a dully disapproving review of Morris Dickstein’s most recent book by British critic John Gross) has become a mantra; American history and historical documents, which are often obsessively read, reread and analyzed with a hermeneutic fever are a rewarding quarry for inquisitive writers. In a way, many of the post-apocalyptic novels of the kind I described above are like historical novels stripped of direct and precise references. And this works: even in the work of writers who do not appear to apply overly much thought or talent to their efforts (Marcel Theroux or Paul Auster would come to mind), the mere fact of taking a piece of American history and removing the teleological push of the American narrative seems to serve to dismantle some illusions, exposing the raw flesh of history. That last metaphor is not out of place in a review of Coal Black Horse, in which amply, and in uncomfortable detail, the aftermath of one of the most famous and gruesome battles in American history is described, as Robey moves among the dead of Pickett’s Charge. Like many of the other novels that share Olmstead’s focus on American history, Coal Black Horse divests the setting of the American narrative, but only in part. Yes, Robert Olmstead did not write a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s a historical novel, but it’s reading experience is closer in spirit, and surprisingly many details, to post-apocalyptic novels than to its historical brethren, from Stephen Crane to Shelby Foote and Charles Frazier (although it’s not dissimilar to Russell Banks’ massive Cloudsplitter).
Historical novels, much like Science Fiction novels on the other end of the spectrum, frequently talk about the present by discussing the past and mirroring in it our morals, prejudice, and general attitudes. Some are more detailed than others, but all find some way to evoke some image of the past, the past as a cohesive unit and place. Props, language, places, the list is long. Much like McCarthy in his aforementioned Blood Meridian, Olmstead manages to do without a lot of these things. Coal Black Horse leads the reader through a landscape stuffed with symbols and signifiers. Even the historical references elude Robey, as he keeps missing the army, and only catches up with it at Gettysburg, when it’s destroyed and its rests scattered along the roads leading away from the slaughter. History slouches off, but what stays behind, and creates the structure, the meat of the book, is Robey’s process of maturing, which takes place in a landscape that is not shaped by history, and which maps out a continuity of an idea of civilization that is born from a violent place. Rape, murder, self-defense and fighting for survival. Coal Black Horse speaks eloquently of the roots of modern America, and it’s not alone in this. There are quite a few books that manage to do this, and do it rather well, I think, but this observation does not take away from the power of Olmstead’s novel.
As Coal Black Horse‘s story concentrates, closes in on Robey, it’s focus actually pans out. Coal Black Horse is decidedly not a novel about history, it’s about the present, about our own motivations. In its harsh education of Robey, it’s pointing out what’s been part of our education all along. It’s a call to look at ourselves, deep and hard, to re-examine what I called the American premise. With today’s talkingheads repeating hogwash about what’s ‘American’ and what’s not, this book (maybe along with Hannah Arendt’s curiously idealistic but brilliant On Revolution) provides an antidote. In this effort, Olmstead frequently overdoes the pathos, to such an extent that he sometimes slips stylistically, into strangely awkward phrases. It’s, ultimately, a very hard book, and too earnest for its own good, but it is a great read, a compelling, marvelous book, one which I recommend fully and completely. I may have reservations, but ultimately, I loved this book, and so will you.