Far Bright Star

Two brothers on the trail of Pancho Villa dip into dark territory in this spare, poetic story.

Far Bright Star By Robert Olmstead Algoquin Books 207 pp., $23.95

If ever there were a book that is the antithesis of summer reading, it is Far Bright Star, by Robert Olmstead. The only thing that says vacation about it is the unrelenting Mexican heat.

The tale of a man who is broken by war and torture, it is most reminiscent of the bleaker works of Cormac McCarthy (although Olmstead doesn’t harbor any irrational prejudices against quotation marks).

Napoleon Childs, a middle-aged cavalryman, and his brother, Xenophon, are career soldiers. “There’s always one more war to fight,” Napoleon comments early on.

But this time, the enemy is nowhere to be found. The cavalrymen are part of the unit charged with capturing the Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa. “Every trail they cut was the same story. The bandits were to be found in the next high valley, the next mountain peak, a cave that did not exist.”

What had been an exercise in futility becomes something much darker when Napoleon and his unit, including the wonderfully named Extra Billy, find themselves being tracked by bandits led by a parasol-wielding female general.

As with Olmstead’s well-regarded sixth novel, “Coal Black Horse,” the main character’s closest relationship is with his mount (a black gelding with a nasty disposition named Rattler).

But “Far Bright Star” dips into even darker territory with torture scenes that go on for pages, and ends with less of a feeling of renewal than “Coal Black Horse.” Given that the hero is an aging soldier, rather than a young boy, that certainly makes sense.

Fans of “No Country for Old Men” will appreciate its uncompromising narrative and spare yet poetic language. The rest of us may need to flee to friendlier territory.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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