Monday, August 4, 2008

Farewell Larry McMurtry, hello Bernard Cornwell

I finished "Lonesome Dove" again yesterday (I've finished it a couple or three or four times before). What a great read. After I put it down the gravitational field of "Comanche Moon" was very strong, but I'm proud to say I resisted. I'm determined to read something by someone else before I return to McMurtry. And I'm determined that my next McMurtry will be a new one, not a re-read of an old friend. Buffalo Hump and Kicking Wolf can sing their war cries at me until they're hoarse, and Famous Shoes can patiently track me to the ends of the property and into my dreams. But "Comanche Moon" is going to have to be content with shining down on me from its high shelf for a while.

So I've started Bernard Cornwell's novel "Redcoat." Cornwell is also an old friend. I've been through all of his Sharpe novels, some a couple of times, and I've been through his archer novels, and I've been through his stonehenge novel; but I've never read "Redcoat" before even though I must have picked up up and looked at it in bookstores a dozen or more times. I've never before taken it home, or at least I don't think so - Linda dotes on finding second copies of books around here, and sometimes even third copies. I think I've never picked it up even though I'm very free with the wallet in bookstores, bookstores being my one consistent area of extravagance since I was a kid. I very seldom leave a bookstore empty-handed, very seldom leave one without at least a couple of purchases. As a result I have a lot of books around here, a lot, trust me.

On that subject here's a business idea for some young entrepreneur out there. I've never followed up on it. Grind up old books sorted by subject and sell specialized literary mulch to folks with too much money on their hands. Sell philosophical mulch to aging hippies who think themselves philosophers. Sell science and science fiction mulch to aging nerds. Sell historical mulch to superannuated education school Ph.Ds. Sell political science mulch to dried up old Peace Corps alums. I'm sure there are idiots who will pay a premium for ground up paper if you tell them it contains the words of folks they wish they could understand or the doings of fictional characters they wish they were. If you find one particular area of mulch is overly popular and you can't get enough copies of Nietsche to meet the demand for "Philosophical Mulch" just remember that the guvming lets folks label stuff with a few drops of the real thing as "fruit juice." Grind up a half ton of old newspapers and throw in one copy of "The Philosophy of History" at the end to transform the whole batch into intellectual gold suitable for bedding the garden of the most tightly wound college professor.

But I have digressed. . .

I've resisted buying "Redcoat" for a long time, mostly because I can't bring myself to be really interested in American revolutionary war fiction or history, just as I can't bring myself to be really interested in 18th century American politics or manners or the fiction about them. It's an odd quirk because I have liked history and fiction about just about every other war in the great saga of man. And I have enjoyed history and fiction about some of the most obscure periods and cultures imaginable. I can read Civil War military stuff, but let me start on a story or a history about the eras of Jefferson or Adams or Jackson, Grant after the war, Cleveland, etc. and soon the thing almost always ends up buried in the "read this some other day" pile.

It's an odd prejudice since the revolutionary war was an amazing victory against massive odds by a pathetic band of ill-equipped paupers led, as are most armies in most times, by incompetents who mostly survived by luck and who won only by the sheer stupid cussedness that enabled them to outlast the British. And 18th century American history is an amazing story of the preservation of a rude republic against all odds by the interaction of a cast of the same sort of alternately self-serving and public spirited, pompous and humble, vainglorious and self effacing, tawdry and noble, brutally competent and pathetically incompetent oddities who have almost always risen to leadership in all societies at almost all times.

"Redcoat" has started well with the British slaughter by bayonet of sleeping American troops who brought on and deserved their fate by virtue of failing to post alert sentries. Nine-tenths of military success is having and enabling sergeants brutal enough to ensure the little things like posting sentries too terrified of someone with rough fists and a clout behind them to fall asleep and miss seeing someone with a bayonet in front of them.

"Redcoat" will surely get slow after the good start, for the revolutionary war is a snoozer with more confusion, retreats and incidents of getting lost than the aftermath of a fraternity drinking party. But "Redcoat"is not going to end up on the mulch heap, at least not until I finish it. I'm going to finish it if I have to choke down every last word.

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