Set in a time where the American Southwest was a ravenous, Godforsaken wasteland, The Diezmo (Houghton Mifflin) illuminates a timeless struggle between man and the forces that struggle tirelessly for the soul. This quagmire of adventure gone awry is plotted in Texas at the midpoint of the 19th century. While the novel encompasses actual events, it is rooted in the Mier Expedition of 1842, chronicling the preconceptions of war as played out by the narrator, James Alexander, and his friend, James Shepard.
While the life-long friends are all about thrill-seeking, the brutal realities of war -- especially in a time of crude weapons and vicious combat -- escalate the experiences of Alexander and Shepard to brutal proportions. Bass masterfully captures the maturation as well as the degeneration that appear in the two characters over the course of the novel. The inherent traits of men with differing personalities become the topic of interest as their collective situation is worsened. A string of events that lead them to be captured by the Mexican army is just the first of many misfortunes. In this crisis, Bass depicts the exposed strengths and flaws of the characters. He also personifies the individuals with a reality that invokes compassion for their misguided tragedies.
As the inhumanity of the story goes on, the reader is privy to such vile circumstances as a bout with typhus in an abysmal Mexican prison, as well as the last words of a condemned prisoner to his mother. Passages like "The murmured prayers of the kneeling men stole faintly over to us - then came the silence that succeeded, more eloquent than sound," illustrate the horror of war and the reality of it. Critics have paralleled this tale with the current state of U.S. involvement in military action abroad. However, the message in The Diezmo is so timeless and poignant it could be applied to any disastrous conflict throughout history.
The journey chronicled in this novel may be fictitious; the underlying themes, however, are tangible. As Bass captures the experiences of Alexander and Shepard, it is evident that what makes one man strong may make other men fade in the cauldron of fear. The literary as well as literal landscapes that Bass fashions are only surmounted by his willingness to take the reader to a place where broken men end up even more damaged -- and without even knowing how to comprehend their own disintegration.
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