We’ve had plenty of blog posts about Robert Olen Butler’s work, and if you go check them out you’ll see the incredible range and imagination that characterizes his work. (We don’t yet have a post about A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the short story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Alas, another sign that none of us can read or write about everything we’d like to.) With The Hot Country, Butler’s narrative skill takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction.
War correspondent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb has traveled to hot spots all over the world, but this time he’s covering one close to home. It’s 1914 and the U.S. has invaded Mexico in response to a diplomatic slight, and Kit is there to report on the heroic measures of the U.S. military. But Woodrow Wilson’s policy is to hold the port town of Veracruz, so there isn’t a whole lot for Kit and his colleagues to write about, except maybe the sporadic attacks on Marines visiting the local brothels. (He’s still got to get that one by the censor.) Unlike his more staid colleagues, he goes out looking for material, and finds a big story that illustrates the turbulent background of Mexican politics.
Kit also learns that a German ship anchored in the harbor and reputed to be carrying arms to the Mexican army may have a dangerous cargo. Keeping in mind events taking place far away, Kit decides to dig deeper. As the nature of that cargo becomes more and more apparent, he takes it on himself to investigate further, then to act on his discovery. His efforts take him out of the city and into the Mexican hinterlands, where he barely escapes with his life. The scoop he carries is so explosive that he must cross the desert into the United States one step ahead of Pancho Villa’s men, and file from the first U.S. telegraph office he finds. But the response is far different from the one he expects.
Although the story is a genuine thriller, Butler makes Kit a dynamic character changed by the events he is part of. Although he is a war correspondent, it isn’t until his Mexican experience that Kit understands that he isn’t an immortal bystander, and the realization humbles him a bit. Kit is also the son of a renowned stage actress and readers come to understand how his upbringing has created the man he is—a restless chameleon entranced by words, capable at fighting but incapable of long-term relationships. In the course of the story, he also comes to grips with the fact that his mother is aging, and that the path she’s chosen has led her into a situation from which he cannot rescue her.
The Hot Country is followed by The Star of Istanbul, which has Kit heading across the Atlantic to cover the Great War, but getting sidetracked by historic events. Its excellent reviews were what got me interested in reading the first of Kit’s adventures. At the same time, I’m hoping that Butler continues to allow his magnificent imagination to continue exploring the unexpected.
Find The Hot Country in the WRL catalog