Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Books for Writers: Doubting "The Diezmo"

 Rick Bass is an award-winning writer, an avid outdoorsman and a dedicated environmental activist. My kind of guy.
Bass' 2005 novel The Diezmo is a mostly fictional account of the Mier Expedition, a 1842 military incursion into Mexico by soldiers from the then-independent nation of Texas. In the story, two young yokels answer the call of duty and glory and join the militia to teach the Mexicans what happens when they mess with San Antonio. More than 500 riders went south; less than 70 stumbled back. (This we learn in the first chapter: no spoilers.)

Our hero is James Alexander, a boy of 16. He joins the militia with his friend, James Shepherd. They are farmboys, too young to have been sacrificed on the altar of the Alamo but still hungry to prove themselves in the field. Alexander is the narrator of the story, and he tells it from the distance of 50 years. He obviously survives the expedition and his rueful tone suggests he might have taken a different path if he knew then what he knows now. War is hell, he says, and men are beasts.
“I have seen a tenuous, uncertain nation bloom into a confident state: too confident at times, it seems to me, in the attitude that because its freedom was born in blood rather than diplomacy, that is the only true and right way.” (The Diezmo, page 201)

The Diezmo offers a fabulous story. There are long marches, battles and desperate escapes. Men are hung, shot, starved, beaten bloody and imprisoned with rats and lice. A boy's arm turns gangrenous and must be sawed away with two cups of whiskey as anesthetic. Young James Alexander meets the girl of his dreams and builds her a house of stone. Ambassadors tussle. Chains clank. Bullets strike unsuspecting heads. Horses become dinner. Men slake their thirst with blood and urine. An artist draws pictures of it all.
There's so much story, in fact, that I missed out on what I love about Bass' writing. He is a master of subtle but stunning characterization. In my favorite Bass story, Fires, he creates a wholly realized breathing human in six paragraphs.
“Some years the heat comes in April. There is always in wind in April, but with luck there is warmth too. There is usually a drought, so that the fields are dry, and the wind is from the south. Everyone in the valley moves their seedlings from the indoors to the outdoors, into their old barns-turned-into-greenhouses. Root crops are what do best up here. The soil is rich from all of the many fires, and potatoes from this valley taste like candy. Carrots pull free of the dark earth and taste like crisp sun. I like to cook with onions. Strawberries do well, too, if they're watered. {Four metaphorical paragraphs about the character's perception of women] I haven't had a woman living with me in a long time now. Whenever one does move in with me,it feels as if I've tricked her, have caught her in a trap: as of the gate has been closed behind her, and she doesn't yet realize it. It's very remote up here.” (Fires, page 1)

By contrast, The Diezmo is a book where in the story comes first: the characters are just along for the ride. James Alexander jumps into the river and is swept along. Even his survival, with one titular exception, is more an act of fate than of will.
In his essay on writing, Danger, Bass suggests novice writers remember that: “The matter of integrity in a story is also crucial. Choose the elements in your stories--characters, events, objects--carefully. What you put into a story from the beginning must be there at the end. Don't put too many elements into a story. It's more important to work thoroughly with the right elements than to have many elements. (Danger, The Huffington Post, Jan. 14, 2011)  The Diezmo, at 205 pages, seems a book of too many elements for too little space.


  1. Well done. Definitely makes me want to check it out, Rob :-)

  2. Sounds like my kind of book! Short and full of story, buying it right now. I hope you get commission off these book reviews.

  3. It also has a lot of desert in it, Kel. Right up your alley.