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Books Adventuring gone awry




Rick Bass imagines a feckless narrator caught in Santa Anna's infamous diezmo

Henry David Thoreau once said, "Exaggerated history is poetry and truth referred to a new standard. He who cannot exaggerate is not qualified to litter truth." Texas-born essayist and novelist Rick Bass loosely based his new book, The Diezmo, on the ill-fated Texan Meir Expedition of 1842. It is fiction written with rich poesy and hyperbole, and the kind of truth that comes with all good fables.

Just a few years after the fall of the Alamo and the Texian victory at San Jacinto, men too young to have fought in those battles mourn a Texas they feel has gone "soft," and the lost opportunity to fight a war. Riding into this longing, Thomas Jefferson Green and Captain William S. Fisher have no trouble enlisting 500 men in a volunteer militia to catch a band of "infidel" Mexican nationals who have recently slipped across the Mexican border to stage an attack on San Antonio.

The soldiers never see, much less battle, a single bandit. With little provocation but their own growing restlessness after weeks of drifting, the militia lays waste to Laredo, killing, burning, and looting until all that remains are the frames of the houses and the mangled bodies of the innocent. Now bandits themselves, the militia crosses the Rio Grande to fight a brief, bloody battle in Ciudad Meir against 1,000 troops of the Mexican army sworn to avenge Laredo. Outnumbered, Green and Fisher surrender. A furious Santa Anna orders the diezmo: an execution in which one in 10 will be chosen randomly to die. The survivors, prisoners of war, must march to their final internment, the Castle of Perve, at the southernmost tip of the country.

The Diezmo
By Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin
$22, 208 pages
ISBN: 0395926173
Although the plot revolves around a series of executions, escapes, and recaptures, much of the book is spent on the languishing inbetween action, and on the thoughts of the first-person narrator, 17-year-old James Alexander. A farmer from LaGrange with a close relationship to nature and a tendency toward quiet observation, Alexander is a vividly descriptive narrator, which makes the book a joy to read. At times, the metaphors are so lushly drawn that the reader temporarily loses the object; a chest wound from a bullet described as "a rose blossom" and a "crimsom boutonniere," is beautiful, but emotionally removed. And yet, that slim moment of detachedness is as truthful as the rotten stench of dead flesh, the black-tongued thirst, and the lice that plague Alexander and his comrades throughout the book.

Almost from the first, Alexander's impulsive decision to enlist is fraught with misgiving, and so Diezmo is told less from the perspective of heroic battle and daring escape than immense regret. It's a simple tale of survival - not just of Alexander, but really any man, caught in any meaningless, adventuring war.

By Susan Pagani

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