Remember the Alamo?
The characters of Rick Bass’ new The Diezmo do.
The Alamo, for those readers not subjected to the 2004 Dennis Quaid/Billy Bob Thornton flop, was a Spanish mission in San Antonio and the site of a militarily disastrous and motivationally priceless 1836 battle that preceded the Texans’ decisive rout of Mexican general Santa Anna at San Jacinto, which victory established Texas’ pre-statehood independence.
Texans remember the Alamo in no small part because in Texas, where there’s no point being proud when you can be jingoistic, seventh-grade Texas history classes teach the legend as if Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were Christ nailed to the cross and George Washington crossing the Delaware all rolled up into one.
The wide-eyed farmboys and unattached roustabouts who serve as The Diezmo’s fodder remember the Alamo at lesser remove, as the heroic stand—thus the chance to be heroic—they just missed. When two end-of-their-rope military men ride through the Texas countryside recruiting able bodies for the Mier Expedition, an apparently suicidal and thoroughly illegal raiding party across the newly established border of the Rio Grande, they sign up, reaching, one gathers, for the coattails of glory.
One has to gather because Rick Bass, who grew up in Texas and has long lived in the Yaak Valley, doesn’t seem to have a particularly good idea why he’s writing about these people. The one clue, and it’s a vague one, comes in an acknowledgement at the end of the novel. The book, Bass says, “was written in the first days of the invasion of Baghdad; for that emotional truth I can claim no evasion or caveat.”
This enigmatic confession, or whatever it is, raises several interesting questions: just how many of those first days, exactly, did it take Bass to crank out these 208 pages; and what emotional truth? That Texas was “born in blood”? Pass the Cormac McCarthy, please.
If a reader should come to The Diezmo, a loosely historical novel, looking for loosely historical parallels to the current Iraq war, one wishes that reader good luck, and trusts that he might find some resonant fragment somewhere in the mess, because, hey, you can see the Lusitania sinking in a storm cloud if you look hard enough.
It’s not that this slim slice of Texana couldn’t sustain a compelling fiction. It’s just that the promising human question at the root of the Mier Expedition—why—is not just unanswered; it’s hardly explored. Why do these men leave home when the homeland is newly secured? Why do they cross the border with a platoon of ragtag misfits just to piss in the face of an already-defeated enemy? Is it a misguided grasp at glory, as Bass halfheartedly suggests? Or sheer youthful stupidity, as he makes it seem? Or was the expedition, as the jacket copy makes damningly more clear than the actual prose, simply “absurd and tragic”?
These questions hardly have time to gel, so busy is Bass trying to turn this novel into a pot-boiler, complete with repetitive escape scenes, a Mordor-ish Mexican prison castle on a hill, and a tacked-on and quickly abandoned subplot involving a glance-ignited case of the I-love-yous for the requisite unattainable Mexican general’s daughter. And don’t forget the diezmo itself, a punishment in which one of 10 prisoners is randomly chosen to die.
It doesn’t help matters that Bass has chosen to tell his story in an incoherent mix of Hemingwayesque plain talk and second-hand magical realism. One minute, the Texas soldiers are marching across the desert wondering, along with the reader, what they’re doing there, and the next they’re taking a break from combat and listening to a sound “like a rushing creek coming from the waterspouts.” Which is weird, because it had stopped raining. Turns out “that the waterspouts were running red with the blood of all the snipers we had killed atop those buildings. The red rivers of their passing were pouring out onto the cobblestones of the street, and the village dogs, gaunt as skeletons, were tottering among the dead and dying, lapping at the pools and puddles of blood between the cobblestones and drinking straight from the fountain of the drain spouts, their muzzles and whiskers red-splashed.”
This is pretty writing, and Robert Rodriguez could have a field day with it, but the problem is one of tone, and Bass’s apparent disinterest in controlling it, or corralling it to the service of some theme that justifies the flourishes. Then again, in a novel about an illicit border crossing, perhaps it’s appropriate that the writing is all over the map.
The dissonance worms its way into the dialogue, too. A gentleman by the name of Bigfoot Wallace tries to make the best of things with the unlikely pronouncement, out loud: “While marching, we can at any rate breathe the pure fresh air of heaven without being hooted at and reviled by the mob and rabble that always collects around us wherever we halt.” Later, Bass takes advantage of Texas prisoner R.A. Barclay’s letter home to indulge in the novel’s sole (and weirdly isolated) example of epistolary colloquialism: “When we shall guet out of this snap God only knows. My only hope is an exchange of prisners…things growes daily more gloomey…I have worn hobels two weeks, binn beat with there spades and muskets, calaboosed and every means to cow me they can think of….”
Maybe Barclay should have had Bigfoot Wallace write his letter for him.
Or maybe Bass should have let the early trauma of Baghdad work its way out of his system before he sat down to transpose his emotional truth onto the long-lost Mier Expedition. After a recent publication history dominated by environmental advocacy and an ode to a favorite dog, one can certainly sympathize with the author’s apparent urge to find a new subject. And one can admire the cojones of one of America’s most admired short story writers wandering down a blind alley, guns blazing. But by the time our narrator hobbles home to Texas to nurse his regrets, one can’t help but conclude that The Diezmo belongs on the shelf of this major writer’s minor works.