four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
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A-Far Bright StarRobert Olmstead directs the Creative Writing Program at Ohio Wesleyan University. He is the author of six previous novels, including Coal Black Horse ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2007), which won the Heartland Prize for Fiction in 2007.

The Story: In 1916, veteran cavalryman Napoleon Childs is charged with assembling a group of soldiers to hunt down Mexican bandit and revolutionary Pancho Villa. Napoleon has little confidence in his ragtag crew, who are far from seasoned. Their foray into Mexico ends in disaster when an independent mob brutally ambushes the group. Napoleon is left, naked and broken, to die under a sweltering desert sun, his only company a pistol with a single ominous bullet. As he struggles with his descent into madness and delusion, Napoleon meditates on his role as a son, a brother, and a soldier, questioning, all the while, the worth of human life.
Algonquin. 207 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 9781565125926

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Terrifying and abruptly beautiful, the new novel gleams with a masculine intensity; it is hard to read and hard to put down. ... Like Cormac McCarthy and Stephen Crane, Olmstead mourns the joke that violence makes of nobility." Karen R. Long

Dallas Morning News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Mystical overtones reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy at his best enlighten the prose, which is tautly written and laced with tension. ... Verbal precision and historical accuracy combine with a poetic distillation of a tragic event presented in solidly captivating reading experience that haunts the mind long after the final page is turned." Clay Reynolds

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Robert Olmstead belongs to a small cadre of contemporary writers (including Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Dillard and Verlyn Klinkenborg) who can translate nature's revelatory beauty into words. ... [A] riveting, cerebral story, made greater through Olmstead's haunting liturgical cadence." Vikas Turakhia

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Far Bright Star makes the reader bleed with the characters and sweat with the intensity of the sun. ... Olmstead writes with a gritty style as sparse as the landscape itself." Sandra Dallas

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"While the narration of the novel's action scenes is powerful and near-perfectly succinct, this novel lacks the sheer force, balanced terseness and complex characterization of McCarthy. ... The often harrowing narrative, the historical import and the metaphysical musings of Childs are engaging, but the inconsistent prose and predictable characters deny the novel's fulfillment." Bryan Beck

Critical Summary

Described by the Dallas Morning News as a "thinking-reader's western," Olmstead's latest novel, which features some characters from Coal Black Horse, is not for the faint of heart. Still, critics were riveted by this gruesome, bloodcurdling, and thoroughly masculine book, where women are virtually nonexistent and war is a constant, prevailing theme. Critics hailed Far Bright Star as a tightly woven tale with terse, dispassionate prose, characteristics that may also be used to describe the laconic Napoleon. Reviewers also compared Olmstead favorably to acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy (The Road). Only the Oregonian felt that the novel was "over-written" and "congested" in parts. But overall, Far Bright Star is a masterful, mesmerizing portrait of one man facing oblivion.

Also by the Author

Coal Black Horse (2007): In May 1863, 14-year-old Robey sets off in search of his father, a Confederate soldier, and arrives in Gettysburg in the days following that famous battle. Part rescue mission and part coming-of-age, Robey's journey transforms him from an innocent child to a man who starts to understand war, vengeance, and redemption.