Our book today is The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer, a 2006 novella released by Counterpoint, and reading it reminded me of a conversation I had the other day with a young novelist friend of mine. We were talking about the skill – and the courage – good writers exhibit not by piling on detail but by steadily whittling it away from their finished product.
Of course what I withheld from my novelist friend was how much I usually loathe such finished products. Novels aren’t verse, after all, and there’s a reason for that – fiction, especially historical fiction, wants to revel in abundance. The extra words aren’t there out of authorial laziness (in the best cases, that is) but rather to present the reader with long hours of research turned into a banquet, a lavished table from which they can pick and choose the delicacies they want. Slim novels are too often slim for the wrong reasons; they can easily be pale, skinny, even boney … and who wants that?
Happily, having read The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, I’m reminded that when novellas are done right, when they’re crafted with the skill and courage my friend and I were talking about, they really can approach the sheer sledgehammer intimacy of poetry. Delia Falconer has written such a book.
The story here centers on Captain Frederick Benteen, who in 1898 Georgia is an old man worn thin by drink and trauma – and who, in 1876, rode with the cavalry of George Armstrong Custer and through his own initiative managed to survive (and help some of his men survive) the Battle of Little Bighorn. That famous, bloody event has pressed a heavy hand on Benteen’s life and mind, and Falconer shows us a man whose memories lurk in the shadows, ready to darken even the most mundane activity, like when Benteen, idling at home while his wife Catharine (“Frabbie”) is away, goes to the icehouse out back:
Inside, he sees nothing at first but blackness and the vapor of his breath. Vegetables and flesh in hibernation in the pit below him. He hears tiny fissures open in the ice like the infinitesimal and random tickings of little pocket watches. Maggots sound similar, he recalls – a more liquidy eagerness about the ticking as they burrow through a corpse.
Into these warped twilight years comes the unexpected: a letter from an earnest young man back East who wishes to correspond with Benteen, to write a definitive account of the great battle and rescue Benteen’s reputation from those naysayers who claim he abandoned Custer at the last crucial moment. The young man has included a photo of himself, and Benteen, that former recruiter of men, reflexively notes ‘the transparent look about the chops of a man who lives on vegetables alone,’ but he can’t help thinking about prospect, however unlikely the vessel:
Like the faint stirrings of sex, he feels old venom sacks filling; the swelling weight of another, second, body within the old made up of bitter organs.
So. This is his avenger.
He pictures him cooking beans in a small room in a boarding house that is overrun with cats.
Like any other reader of historical fiction, I like to get totally caught up in the work. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers took me 37 minutes to read, so that was never going to happen – but I don’t think novellas like this one want to do that. Instead, they want to lodge themselves, like splinters, underneath your imagination; they want to burrow; they want to be remembered. Falconer’s skill – and courage – in writing such a spare book is totally assured: the perception with which she displays, bends, refracts every scene, every character, every memory, guarantees you’ll remember this book. Images and their counterpoints break upon the reader constantly:
This is what you did before a battle, he said to Frabbie last night; you had to fold your life like a jacket you would return to, and leave it with De Rudio and his trumpet, or in among the bushes; important to move weightless and unburdened toward your horse, otherwise your life’s tender weight would trip you up.
And Frabbie asked him, Do you think this is a feeling women never have?
I’m glad that Counterpoint is publishing this little book; I urge all of you to read it.