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coal black horse

22 april 2007

Robert Olmstead's Coal Black Horse is a spare, short Civil War novel that avoids rhetoric, ideology, and romantic clichés. Very much of its time – by which I mean its 2000s, Iraq-War, post-9/11 time – Coal Black Horse presents the War as one damn thing after another, a welter of directionless violence populated by freebooting marauders and creatures of darkness whose socially-imposed inhibitions have been stripped away by the surrounding state of war.

Coal Black Horse is technically a Gettysburg novel, but it couldn't be less like Michael Shaara's stately, impeccably organized, oratorical depiction of that battle in The Killer Angels. Nor does it resemble Mackinlay Kantor's classic evocation of Gettysburg in Long Remember, though it uses Kantor's motif of a civilian drawn into the vortex of the great battle. Robey Childs, Olmstead's hero, arrives at Gettysburg too late, experiencing not the three days of fighting but the aftermath: the fields littered with dead and dying men, the scavengers, the photographers (who are a kind of scavenger after images).

Coal Black Horse falls under the pervasive influence of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain: it is the story of a man who travels across a home front which has been altered irremediably by the force fields of a more-or-less distant war. Yet where Cold Mountain is an Odyssey of sorts, a man's homecoming to the woman who is the fixed point in his life, Coal Black Horse is a Telemachiad. Robey is a teenager; his mother sends him off from their rural Virginia home in 1863 in search of his father, a Confederate soldier whose doom is imminent. Robey's mother just seems to know that her husband is doomed, and her instructions to her son are simple: "Go and find your father and bring him back to his home" (3).

Easier said than done. Robey doesn't quite know where the Army of Northern Virginia is, only that if he doesn't find his father by the beginning of July, his mother foresees a very bad outcome. Robey sets off on the title animal, a magnificent stallion who is easily the most sympathetic character in the novel.

Coal Black Horse adopts the picaresque model of Cold Mountain, where a lone hero on the road encounters various colorful characters. Some are variations on Frazier's themes. Where Frazier's Inman met a goat woman, Olmstead's Robey meets a goose woman; where Inman met a vicious preacher abusing one woman, Robey meets a vicious religious fanatic abusing two.

The gore of the battle and battlefield scenes is extreme. Recent Civil War novels appear to be trying to outdo their predecessors in the hideousness of their violence. Each one seems to suspect previous novels of pulling punches, of not descending to the full depth of horror that was the War. The result, in several recent books like Owen Parry's Call Each River Jordan and Stephen Wright's Amalgamation Polka, is a mode of historical narration that reaches more and more baroque levels in the description of sudden or agonizing deaths and dismemberments. Doubtless there is authenticity mixed in with Grand Guignol here, but there is also a sort of dehumanization; as anonymous character after anonymous character dies a bizarre unexpected death, and our young hero becomes a full-blooded killer, we do not learn to grieve for lives cut off, but simply to inure ourselves against the next image of horror. It's like watching the evening news from Iraq; and maybe for the 2000s, that is the only possible representation of war.

Olmstead, Robert. Coal Black Horse. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2007.