"The Diezmo," the terrific new novel from Rick Bass, is inspired by an infamous episode in early Texas history that became known as the Mier Expedition. At a time of continuing tensions and occasional Mexican invasions along the border of the new Republic, Texans formed raiding units whose actions went well beyond security into full-fledged pillage and slaughter. The last of these raiders laid siege to the Mexican village of Mier where, after a bloody Alamo-style battle, the Texans surrendered and were taken as prisoners by the Mexican army.
The ensuing ordeal of the captured Texans, which would persist for nearly two years, is the heart of Bass' story. Bass handles all of this with great skill and concision, and more importantly, with clear-eyed compassion.
His narrator, James Alexander, is 16 when he and a friend are recruited as raiders. Their motivation was glory -- young men longing for the chance at something that might add luster to their small-town lives.
"We were overcome with wonder and relief at having been chosen," Alexander tells us. "We would lead remarkable lives. We had been rescued." What makes this narrative voice so effective is that the tale is told from 50 years hence, by an old man who can look back on the young Republic. He sees the foolish and misguided notions that led to so much bloodshed and suffering.
Alexander's tone is elegiac, and even when depicting the exploits of raids and the hardships of imprisonment, there is always a subtle tinge of sadness rather than blame. "I have seen a tenuous, uncertain nation bloom into a confident state," he says. "Too confident at times, it seems to me, in the attitude that because its freedom was born of blood rather than diplomacy, that is the only true and right way."
Of course, reflections such as those inevitably lead the reader to reflect on the relevance of the story to today's state of affairs, and there is no doubt that this is Bass' intention. In his acknowledgments, Bass tell us that the novel was written in the first days of the invasion of Baghdad: "Decapitations, inhumane treatment of prisoners, questionable documents, economic inabilities to wage sustained war, political ambitions: all that exists now existed then."
But as an allegory to our war in Iraq, this novel is imperfect at best; the differences in political motivation and in manner of combat are so great as to strain any elegant comparison. Still, "The Diezmo" (the term refers to the execution of prisoners) is very much a powerful story about how young men look to violence as a means to craft an identity, and it is a reminder of how hubris and greed, as much as any higher ideals, have shaped our national identity.
But these thematic concerns would be a lot less interesting were it not for the lean beauty of Bass' prose. His descriptions of warfare and of the horrors endured by the prisoners are gripping. At one point, a group of prisoners escapes into the mountains, but the harsh landscape only intensifies their misfortune as they can find no water. Soon they have no choice but to dismount and take out their knives and swords. "It was sloppy, inefficient work, and as the floundering mules and horses staggered about bleeding to death, we raced after them, laboring to hold our empty gourds beneath leaping gouts of blood; and when the gourds were filled, we drank directly from the animals' necks.... "
Such scenes are impressive in their imaginative specificity, and by the book's end, they have accumulated into a meditation on the ultimate senselessness of violence. Bass is reminding us how different glory can come to seem in the summons of time.
Adam Hill is an occasional contributor to Book Review and other publications, including The Believer.