Act Two finds Henry in the Korean War – and this is where Olmstead hits his narrative stride. As soft and tender as Act One might have been – clearly the set-up for that awful cover art – part two is gritty, violent, terrifying, and dark, reading much more like a Blood Meridian or a Matterhorn than A Walk to Remember.
An unraveled sheath of muscle sprawled from a torn pant leg. Red-hot fragments driven deeply into a man’s body and his legs were shattered. A fist-sized hole. The men did not look human after war’s subtractions: no eye, no ear, no nose, no face, no arm, no leg, no gut, no bowel, no bone, no spine, no muscle, no nerve, no breath, no heart, no brain, no faith.
Olmstead’s writing is so sparse and stark – so “Cormacmcarthian,” to coin a bad, new phrase – he leaves much of Henry’s emotional development to the reader’s imagination. We are allowed to fill in the emotional gaps left in Henry’s wake – never are we hit with heart-to-heart talks between soldiers or revealing inner monologues. War Is Hell and Henry’s detachment is painfully obvious on every page. By never stating the obvious (through said inner thoughts by the protagonist and rote dialogue) the whole things seems to carry more weight, more gravity. Henry’s animalistic, instinctive fight for survival on the frigid, snow-swept landscape of the Korean peninsula eventually defines him as a human, strangely enough, despite the fact that he manages to lose a grip on his actual humanity in the process. Like I said, much of the deep thinking is left to the reader, which is really where the brilliance of this novel lies.
*Sidenote: I’ll admit to not knowing a damn thing about the Korean War – the one between the other two – and it seemed pretty freakin’ awful, based on this fictional account. Henry & his friend, Lew are freezing and severely out-manned for much of Part 2, dodging the endless streams of Chinese soldiers advancing on American positions by moonlight across the frigid snowscape. Scary shit, especially because it’s real AND I know nothing about it.
When Henry finally returns to the US, he is, of course, just a shell of the man he once was. The truly painful part of this is that Henry is barely a man – he was just 17 when he left for the war and a mere year has gone by since. Eighteen years old and already his eyes have seen more than anyone should ever be asked to see. So, understandably, he has a hard time adjusting to American life in the 1950’s. He drifts, he drinks, he sleeps outside from time to time. At every turn, he feels the world rejecting him – like a puzzle piece trying to fit into the wrong puzzle. Eventually, as you know that he would, he makes his way back to Mercy, leading him to a stunning conclusion about his life path – made all the more astounding given his extreme youth.
I may be wrong in making this conclusion, but… I read The Coldest Night as a parable about Heaven, Hell, and whatever lies between. Act One is Heaven for Henry – he’s comfortable, young, in love. Life is as close to perfect as he has ever known. Act Two is undeniably Hell for him. Death, violence, cold, (I’ve always believed that the inner circle of Hell will be frozen, as in Dante’s vision) and fear surround him at every turn. Act Three is a middle ground of sorts – Henry is lost in this Purgatory, not belonging to either world, but needing to make a choice in the end, of which ending is to be his own.
It may not be a Nicholas Sparks novel, as the cover art may suggest, but The Coldest Night is one helluva heartbreaker, let me tell you. It packs a wallop, no doubt – emotionally, philosophically – and it left me stunned, sad, and in utter awe of a writer who may just finally get his due. Robert Olmstead, I bow down before you, sir.