The Coldest Night
- Robert Olmstead
- 304 pp.
- April 9, 2012
The distinct separation between the main character’s domestic life and his years fighting in Korea makes for two stories in one novel.
Reviewed by Paul Vamvas
The problem with Robert Olmstead’s new novel, The Coldest Night, is that it seems to be two books, or perhaps parts of two books that Olmstead never quite succeeds in melding together. One is a love story and the other, a war story. And while the protagonist for both, Henry Childs, is the same, and what he experiences in one story affects the other, they seem more stitched together than blended. There are, however, pleasures to be found in both.
Good sex is difficult. I don’t mean, to have. (That is an altogether different review.) I mean, to write about. So it is no small compliment to say that Olmstead writes some very good sex scenes in The Coldest Night.
“It was a world where she would always want him between her legs. She would bite down hard on the muscle that strapped his shoulder cuff, the insides of her strong legs, her fingers in his mouth, the runnels of sweat streaking his back and pooling in the skin of her sunken belly. Her fingers bruising his skin. The fury and rush of their pumping blood.”
Or this one:
“Don’t move, she said and he answered her by not moving and then she splayed her legs and there were contractions deep inside her and she gasped. She folded herself around him again and held him inside her and she would not let him go.”
In fact Olmstead’s greatest gift is his power of description, his ability to draw vivdly the world his characters inhabit, as in this summary of the hardscrabble existence of Henry’s family:
“There were so many women, aunts and great aunts, who’d buried husbands, dead from the wars, dead from the trauma of accidents — the celerity of white pine turned and twisted, split and shattered and descending from the sky, or under the earth where the kettlebottoms, petrified tree stumps, dropped from the roofs of mines to break a shoulder or stave in a skull. The women watched their children be hobbled by rickets, go deaf from untreated ear infections. They knew what it was to live on corn bread, molasses, and scrap and see their children eating dirt for the mineral it contained, and after a time they turned a bend in life and their teeth went bad, their lovely strong backs and shoulders grew humped and stooped, their knuckles thickened from chores and cold, and their cheeks and necks grew hollow.”
Again, it takes no small talent to evoke such despair, to make the reader see children not crippled by rickets but “hobbled” by them, with its Dickensian overtones of hopeless poverty, and the “lovely strong backs and shoulders” of young brides and mothers grow “humped and stooped” while “their cheeks and necks grew hollow.” That is good stuff.
Unfortunately Olmstead does not provide the same kind of detail about the internal lives of his characters. The Coldest Night starts out as a love story between working class Henry and Mercy, the bored, spoiled, and beautiful daughter of the local rich guy. Henry works at a stable where Mercy comes to ride, where they share a love for a special horse. Then they share coffee and conversation and then after a while they share a bed. That is all fine. Young lust is a completely believable motivation.
Then Henry and Mercy run away in the car daddy gave her as a high school graduation present. There are several miles of young lust until they arrive in New Orleans where they move into an apartment owned by a relation of Mercy’s who dislikes her father even more than Mercy does. They live idyllically for some weeks until daddy comes to get Mercy, takes her back home and has Henry beaten up to convince him of the wisdom of staying away from her.
Okay a little clichéd but that’s alright. There are only 30-something plots in the world and a version of this one worked okay for Shakespeare, so why not. The problem is the next part.
Because from page 89 to page 195 we are in Korea at the height of the war and we have 106 pages of brutal battle, unendurable suffering and stupefying slaughter. Yes Henry thinks of Mercy but this is a completely different book and one for which Olmstead has given us only the slightest preparation. At an aid station where Henry brings a blinded soldier:
“The men did not look human after war’s subtraction: no eye, no ear, no nose, no face, no arm, no leg, no gut, no bowel, no bone, no spine, no muscle, no nerve, no breath, no heart, no brain, no faith.”
But Henry survives and on page 199 he is home again. He wanders aimlessly for several pages and then finally seeks out and finds Mercy living in a boathouse on the river. I won’t spoil the end for you but suffice it to say you will not be surprised. Except perhaps by their initial conversation upon reuniting:
Where have you been? she said. I have been to Korea. What did you go there for? There was a war. I know that, she said. She had come from sleep and seemed not surprised to see him.
Really? After two years of not knowing where he was or how he was or even if he was, does this ring true? Olmstead is a gifted writer not afraid to put his characters through extremes. But they don’t seem to grow or change much as a consequence of these experiences. And in the end the reader has taken a long journey with them without seeming to get anywhere.
Paul Vamvas is an attorney with the federal government in Washington, D.C. His first novel, A Terror in Byzantium, a political thriller that takes place in Greece and Turkey at the end of the Cold War, is available as an e-book on both Nook and Kindle as well as from Smashwords.