Though it's unknown to most Americans, the Mier Expedition of 1842 deserves a place beside Custer's Last Stand in the Big Book of American...
Though it’s unknown to most Americans, the Mier Expedition of 1842 deserves a place beside Custer’s Last Stand in the Big Book of American Military Fiascos. As Rick Bass tells it in “The Diezmo,” (Houghton Mifflin, 208 pp., $22) a few years after the Republic of Texas was established, an army of 500 volunteers of questionable integrity rode south toward Mexico to hunt down a band of Mexican infidels who had attacked San Antonio. The army — literally and figuratively — went south from there.
Historical fiction is new territory for Bass, too, though his pen already ranges all over the genre map — from short stories, to haunting nature writing, to an elegant memoir (“Colter”) about his much-missed hunting dog. “The Diezmo,” Bass’ second novel, also occasionally features Bass’ handsome sentences, as well as some gripping action. In the whole, however, Bass’ need to work with the expedition’s history, however colorful, seems to shackle him somewhat as a storyteller and prevent him from making this story wholly his own.
Rick Bass will read from “The Diezmo,” 7:30 p.m. Monday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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When the army appears at the tale’s outset, two young bucks, the fictional narrator James Alexander and his friend, James Shepherd, jump at the chance for some shootin’. Their Texas is a place where “peace, like a curse, was settling in.” They saddle up. Bass is without peer when he writes about characters in their landscape, as when the group rides toward the border full of anticipation of glory: “We seethed with the gold light within us, rode across burnished plains gilded in November light, with the dead dry grasses rustling in the north wind.”
That’s about the last golden thing that happens. The narrator quickly notices that this posse is “more marauders than militia.” First, the army ransacks Laredo (a Texas zip code, apparently, affording no protection from this group). Young Shepherd loses his arm and begins to undergo a dark change, becoming protégé to the group’s yellow-eyed commander. The army crosses the border, takes hostage a worthless pueblo, kills a priest, brazenly attacks a much larger Mexican force, butchers and is butchered. These first hundred pages are like an adjective-excised version of Cormac McCarthy’s great anti-Western, “Blood Meridian.”
If this synopsis also sounds like the front page of this newspaper recently — a brazen, Texas-led invasion flows into a foreign country, in pursuit of those who supposedly threaten our security — you’re right. Bass says in the acknowledgements that he wrote “The Diezmo” during the first days of the latest invasion of Iraq. For Bass, the Mier Expedition’s leaders are scoundrels who hide information from the troops and care only about their own bloodlust and political futures.
In Bass’ first novel, “Where the Sea Used to Be,” the author was in no hurry to tell the story. The book moved on a geologic time scale. Descriptions accreted like layers of sediment. Plot-wise, nothing much happened. That book didn’t work.
“The Diezmo” stumbles for the opposite reason. The book’s second half is a spin-cycle of events: The expedition is punished, escapes, is recaptured, punished, escapes again, etc. (The novel’s title comes from a dramatic scene in which the army’s Mexican captors demand that 1 in 10 of the remaining Texans die for their crimes.) There’s so much movement — not all of it very interesting — that Bass seems required to spend every page simply saying what happens next, instead of developing his characters. (Perhaps this has something to do with time pressure; the book was serialized in Narrative magazine.) So, for example, we don’t learn much about the transformation of the narrator’s best friend, Shepherd. And an otherwise beautiful interlude about the narrator’s relationship with a young Mexican girl ends up feeling unmoored and irrelevant, because Bass suddenly
drags his protagonist out of it and throws him in a prison hundreds of miles away — presumably to synch up the plot with the historical record.
The problem with history is that it lacks the cadence of good fiction. Bass is at his best when he, and not history, decides how time moves and events unspool.