Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hot Country - Robert Olen Butler

The first in a different series of historically-themed novels from The Yard Dog, The Hot Country follows newspaper reporter Christopher Marlowe Cobb - or Kit - as he follows a trail of intrigue during the Mexican Revolution. Cobb's in Vera Cruz, reporting on the recent landing of American troops there. A German freighter, loaded with guns that are presumably for Huerta, sits offshore, watched carefully by the Americans. In the dead of night, someone disembarks from the ship and goes inside the German consulate, Cobb having learned of this from a young boy he's hired to keep an eye on the ship. Cobb himself has been somewhat distracted by both a young sniper named Luisa Morales - who hates priests, the government, and Americans - and by a member of a German band who seems to know Cobb. Before long, the band member is dead, Luisa has vanished, and the fellow off the boat is catching a train north, towards Pancho Villa, with Cobb dogging his trail under a couple of assumed identities.

I'm not sure the book really knows what it's trying to be. There's a lot about Cobb trying to balance who he is, and what that means about how far he should go, and what he's trying to accomplish. But his mother was a great stage actress, and he was in many ways raised by actors, so Butler plays up the idea of Cobb trying to play roles all the time. Even when he isn't under a false identity, he behaves as though, Christopher Cobb, reporter, is a role he's playing.

There's also a subplot about his mother adapting to changing circumstances in her life, which I think is meant to dovetail with Luisa's arc, or be some illumination about how Cobb sees women, and how he needs to see them (not as things that need saving or protecting, but as people making their own choices about how to adapt, and when to fight their battles). Luisa went north to join Villa's army because she wants to fight, and he's the rebel leader she most respects. But while women accompany his army, they aren't allowed to fight. They cook, they launder, they give their bodies to the men, or just to Villa. Cobb describes it as Villa raping Luisa, but she never says that outright, though the implication is strong enough I think it's accurate. Certainly it isn't why she came there. But she also rejects Cobb's offer to help her kill Villa in revenge, which seems to be because she truly believes Villa is the best hope for her country, and even if she hates what happened to her, she accepts what happened to her as some evil that has to be tolerated, at least for the time being. It's hard to say; we're never privy to her internal monologue, and Cobb freely admits he doesn't understand her that well.

I was more interested in the goings-on in Vera Cruz, dealing with the sort of background violence of a revolution, the effects of having a foreign occupying force there. Since Cobb is an American, he's seen as part of that occupying force, but the American military would not necessarily agree. General Funston (who I recall from Honor in the Dust, the book I read last year about the Philippine occupation) is in charge, and makes it clear the military is going to start looking more closely at the stories the reporters are filing, to make certain they fit the spin the U.S. wants to put on things. That felt positioned at one scale, and then Cobb is mixed up in international intrigue, trying to play a German national when he doesn't speak German, uncovering secret alliances, getting into gun battles and sword fights, and the scale shifted. It didn't work as well.

Also, whenever there's a fight scene, Butler shifts to Hemingway-style run-on sentences for the duration. It's supposed to feel like everything is happening too fast, and thoughts and action are all blurring together, with no time to separate the two. It comes off as indulgent and kind of irritating, though. I think there are ways to describe a fight scene as being like that, but which read better.

'"Coffee," I said. "Mexican coffee. High-mountain, shade-grown, cheap-and-getting-cheaper coffee. Wonderful beans. Did you smell the coffee in the warehouses of Esperanza? Great bouquet. Half those beans will end up in Canadian cups. It's cold and it's dark in Canada. We need to get our blood going and we do it with Mexican coffee, which I export to great profit for the everlasting benefit of my countrymen."

I had no idea where all that came from. Unpremeditated. Improvised. To be honest, actors - who were, collectively, my aunts and uncles, my older sisters and brothers, my trainers and my professors, my fathers - through all my formative years - actors, I say - including the actor I myself often am - sometimes scare the hell out of me.

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