Monday, July 30, 2012

The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead

The Coldest Night: a Novel of Love and War (Algonquin, 2012) by Robert Olmstead has a style so immediate and atmospheric, it took my breath away. I found myself wishing there was a little more love and a lot less war, but I stayed with it. Although it is not a suspense story, it had its own constant worrisome tension. Would star-crossed young lovers Henry and Mercy be able to make a life for themselves after running away to New Orleans? And when Henry Childs becomes a Marine and is sent to Korea, every page serves up the pure terror of war.

This epic novel has a timeless quality. Olmstead bears comparison with Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison. Often when I came across Olmstead's well-crafted sentences, I felt compelled to read them more than once before continuing with the narrative. And so in my effort to demonstrate Olmstead's literary wizardry, here is one sentence about war that dazzled me:

His fear was hammer-striking at the walls of his heart and he was desperate to kill and not be killed.

Barely eighteen, Henry Childs is the everyman boy soldier, and his acquaintance with death in all its forms haunts the novel.

As for love, here is a short passage between Mercy and Henry:

"I am a fool," he said.
"I love fools," she said, swinging her legs across his lap and her arm at his neck, "because they believe that anything can happen. I am about sure I was made for you."

Yes, it was the style more than the plot that gobsmacked me. Although I might have wanted some of the plot details to have played out differently, that didn't matter. I look forward to reading two other Olmstead novels about the Childs family: Coal Black Horse (Algonquin, 2007) and Far Bright Star (Algonquin, 2009). I don't know where Robert Olmstead has been all my life, but I am going to be chasing him down from now on...

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