|The much-improved paperback|
#2: The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead
The full Catapult review.
I really don’t know how this one slipped by so many reviewers and readers this year. (It did receive a coveted starred review from PW and get named to their Top Fiction list, but everyone else seems to have missed it.) Although, in the opening to my earlier review, I went off on the crappy cover art (not seen here): “you will almost certainly overlook (it) when you see it sitting on a table in your local bookstore.” So maybe that’s what happened.
When I finished reading The Coldest Night back in February, I was immediately sure that it would take a monumentally great book to knock it from the Number One spot on the Catapult Notable list for the year. And, well, that did happen, but just barely.
Olmstead has got to be – in my opinion – one of America’s most under-appreciated novelists. Certainly the best one you’ve never heard of. This book – his seventh! – is laid out like a three-act, allegorical play about Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Or, at least that‘s how I read it. Henry Childs is a 17-year–old poor Southern boy in 1950 when he meets Mercy, from the more-refined country club crowd. They of course fall in love and they run away to start a life together in New Orleans, far from Mercy’s domineering family. Life is blissfully perfect, until Mercy’s brother tracks them down, humiliates Henry, and forces Mercy back home. Unable to face his own crumbling life, Henry joins the Army and enters the Korean War – and this is where Olmstead truly hits his narrative stride. As soft and tender as Act One might have been, Act Two is gritty, violent, terrifying, and dark. (Heaven, Hell, anyone?) I hate re-using quotes that I’ve already used in earlier posts, but this one… man, oh man…
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.
Never are we hit with clichéd heart-to-heart talks between soldiers or revealing inner monologues; war is a tension-filled Hell and Henry’s emotional detachment is painfully obvious on every page. It’s terrifying, all of it. Henry’s animalistic, instinctive fight for survival on the frigid, snow-swept landscape of the Korean peninsula eventually defines him as a human, despite the fact that he manages to lose a grip on his actual humanity in the process. At every turn – especially upon his return home in Act Three – 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 – both the woman he loves and the figurative “mercy” he seeks for redemption – leading him to a stunning conclusion about his life path. It all packs a wallop, no doubt – emotionally, philosophically – and it left me stunned, sad, and in utter awe of one of our finest living writers.
It dawned on me as I was revisiting this book for the purposes of this Notable list that Henry’s story has amazing parallels to John Bartle’s in The Yellow Birds (#9). These characters are separated in time by 60+ years, yet… nothing has changed. Each of these men – no, boys – is irrevocably damaged for the rest of their lives by what they saw in wartime. It just ain’t right. Bartle says, “It was a shitty little war.” Which one we’re talking about doesn’t really matter in the end. They’re all shitty.
#3: May We Be Forgiven
#4: This Is How You Lose Her
#5: Things That Are
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables