- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
“… but that was in another country,/ And besides, the wench is dead.” — Christopher Marlowe, 1589, “The Jew of Malta”
Robert Olen Butler has been described by some critics as a “shape-shifting” writer, changing dramatically with each novel. My reaction to this description is: So What? He’s a great stylist, with beautifully drawn characters that draw the reader in so he or she can’t put down the book, to use a cliché. He’s equally adept at short stories and novels and has earned the right to do what he pleases, so the fact that his new novel “The Hot Country” (The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc., 336 pages, $25.00) is being billed as his “first crime novel” in the jacket flap copy elicits the same “So What?”
When it comes to writing, labels mean nothing to me: Good writing is good writing, as I stated in my review of an anthology of mystery writing appreciations called “Books to Die For” (link:http://www.huntingtonnews.net/45125). Butler’s novel featuring foreign correspondent Christopher Marlowe (Kit) Cobb, will appeal to those who love Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene — as well as to those whose tastes run more to John le Carré or Len Deighton.
Butler, a 67-year-old native of Granite City, IL (across the Mississippi River from St. Louis) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993 for his first story collection, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain”.The Pulitzer committee said that the stories “raise the literature of the Vietnam conflict to an original and highly personal new level.”
The Graham Greene reference is apt, since in his 1939 travel book “The Lawless Roads” the English writer covered the anti-Catholic Church (“Cristero”) movement waged by the anti-clerical regime in Mexico much the same as Butler’s protagonist Kit Cobb covers the American invasion of Vera Cruz, Mexico in early 1914 and the turmoil in Mexico during the presidency of Victoriano Huerta, El Chacal (The Jackal).
It’s April 1914. Kit Cobb travels to the Gulf of Mexico port city — today spelled “Veracruz” — to cover the invasion ordered by President Woodrow Wilson, as well as possible German intervention on the side of Mexican rebel Pancho Villa. Not yet involved in what came to be called first “The Great War” and later the First World War, Germany has a significant presence in the port city, including a consulate that Kit Cobb — and most of the other correspondents — considers to be a nest of spies.
The involvement of Germany in Mexico brought to my mind the strange case of the Zimmermann Telegram in early 1917, three years in the future. In the telegram, thought by many to be a British false flag forgery designed to get the Americans into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann promises the return to Mexico of lost territories — Texas, New Mexico, Arizona — if Mexico joins the war on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, AKA the Central Powers. (for the national Archives account of the telegram, also called the Zimmermann Note, to the German ambassador to Mexico, click:http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/zimmermann/).
Veracruz’s beautiful Zocalo
I’ve seen posts labeling Zimmermann a Jew, bent on Zionist domination of the world. In fact, Zimmermann (1864-1940), was a Christian who was involved in plots to support an Irish rebellion, an Indian rebellion and to help the Bolsheviks undermine Czarist Russia. There’s an echo of the future telegram in “The Hot Country” but I won’t go into any more detail since it’s a spoiler. The definitive book on the Zimmermann Telegram is historian Barbara Tuchman’s “The Zimmermann Telegram.”
Kit Cobb — named in honor of the Elizabethan playwright by his actress mother (a constant element in the novel who plays a significant role at the end) — is the very model of a swashbuckling newspaperman in “The Hot Country.” Covering the war in enemy territory and sweltering heat, Cobb falls in love with Luisa, a young Mexican laundress, who is not as innocent as she seems.
Not far from the Zocalo, Vera Cruz’s central square, Cobb witnesses a priest being shot. The bullet strikes the crucifix the priest wears around his neck and leaves him unharmed. Cobb hires a young pickpocket to help him find out the identity of the sniper and why important German officials are coming into the city in the middle of the night from ammunition ships docked in the port.
Kit Cobb’s typewriter, a Corona Three, the laptop of news people in the early part of the 20th Century, plays a role in the plot, in effect saving Cobb’s life. Ernest Hemingway and many other correspondents used this very compact, folding platen, three-bank machine. I own a very clean example and it’s still functional after more than 90 years!
I’ve visited Veracruz, a fascinating city of more than 500,000 that reminds me a lot of New Orleans, especially with its wrought ironwork. The central square or Zocalo (pictured) is the heart of the city, which has a strong Caribbean/Cuban influence. The cuisine of Veracruz is as distinctive as that of New Orleans and is among the best in Mexico.
So whether you’re a fan of “literary” fiction or you don’t give a hoot and just love good writing, “The Hot Country” provides a look into a “Cold War” that came before the one that arrived after World War II.
About the Author
Robert Olen Butler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of twelve novels, six story collections, and a book on the creative process, “From Where You Dream”. A recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, he also won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and has received two Pushcart Prizes. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.