Delia Falconer’s, The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (Soft Skull Press, $16.00), is a historical novel about Custer the way, say, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is about a nude descending a staircase. The General George is one of her characters, sure. The men are all a-horseback and carrying guns, you bet. But historical specificity is very much outside her area of real interest. Cannons and encampments serve only as backdrop. No, the author here is less curious about events 130 years old than she is about certain universals of human character. Her subject is men at war, and the friendships that grow from war, and the aimless, endless daydreamings of sex, regret, and childhood that occur during war; and perhaps most of all, what it’s like to grow old after war. “The urge to urinate is constant, the results always paltry.” Her method is meta and modernist, a conflation of Woolf and Faulkner, Barth and Brecht, but her subject predates language entirely: What becomes of boys when you send them off to kill and die?
While not unflawed, Falconer’s achievement in The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is substantial. Indeed, at times it flirts with genius. Previously the author of the acclaimed The Service of Clouds, within these scant 136 pages (not incidentally, short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) Falconer appropriates, as armature for her musings, the historical figure of Frederick Benteen, Captain under Custer in the 7th Calvary. In Falconer’s reimaginings, we come to Benteen in 1898, more than twenty years after Little Bighorn. “In his desk his finds one of those old pictures of the Seventh. He will show it to the boy – this is how it feels to live within a country that has not yet been invented.” He’s an old man, now, reflecting on the brief few days on the frontier that would define the rest of his life. “…as he stood unharmed among the Indians’ bullets and urged the men on, he had been sustained by some great idea of fairness, the firm knowledge that our actions make us, a near-religious faith in sweat and lead.” A survivor, a ruminator, a poet of perception, a man lost to history by the simple fact of his survival (while the pathologically arrogant Custer died to be mentioned in millions of texts), the language put into Benteen’s head by Falconer is every bit the equal to the enormity of the events he witnessed:
“Since those two days pinned down on the ridge at Little Bighorn he has been able to feel his own life, and that is no good thing. Sometimes it floats like a shadowy cast before his eyes, filling and unfilling like a curtain. Sometimes it is a high ecstatic whistling in his head, like the wind on those grass hills that leaped into their mouths and scrubbed the hollows of their skulls. At other times, like now, it is a sad and solitary thing, no bigger than a mouse or frog, a timid weight.”
Custer is, of course, one of the canonical staples of American history. He’s been vilified by revisionists and pedestaled by amateur buffs, reconsidered and reviled, chewed over and inflated, popped like gum and spat aside. Given this wealth of previous material — all the various descriptions of Custer’s hair, his last place finish out of West Point, his performance in the Civil War — it’s understandable that Falconer has elected to come at the subject with a less traditional approach. This is not a book that’s going to tell to us about troop movements, about the lay of the land and what Indians hid behind what hill. She elects instead to circle around the event, pecking away in associational pieces. Gradually, she arrives at larger, more evasive truths. “Custer’s legend growing even then, their corpses tied to his, their reputations measured by his actions. / A crawfish he had seen once in New Orleans, the blue slick upon its back, its feelers touching at the air before it, the last alive upon a silver pile of others dead.”
Her language is voluptuous, her images Kodachrome bright, her melancholy wisdom spot-on for an old soldier reflecting back. “God plays tiddlywinks, and we’re the buttons.” As the novel progresses, however, as the cast of characters expands and scrolls by without the usual antecedents of stage-setting, reader-friendly roadsigns, it seems that if you were to twist the kaleidoscope a few turns, you might say that Falconer’s formidable narrative strength is also her principal weakness. Given her lack of specificity, the tenor of her ambitions, much of what she describes could just as easily be displaced to some other military tragedy. “Can this be history, is that all it comes down to, as Custer may have guessed, this scrutiny of a face and its relationship to light?” Change the accents and Gallipoli might have just as easily sufficed. “Something else Star-Gazer said…he cannot quite remember – About history being the sum of the griefs we choose, more than the triumphs.” True, we have Libbie Custer and how the men despised her, but we have little of Custer himself. It seems a disappointment, reading a novel about the Little Bighorn and not learning more about the specifics of the battle.
Probably unfair. And no doubt the author herself would have a ready retort. In fact, she supplies it ahead of time, in an author’s note. “While not intended as a realist narrative, The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is based on an historical incident and its aftermath.” No realist narrative, indeed. A few lines later, she provides further insight into her approach. “The name ‘De Rudio’ will sound familiar to some readers: I have adapted the name of 2nd Lieutenant Charles C. DeRudio, who joined the Seventh in 1869, for my fictional bugler.” She’s obviously coming to this work with the expectation that you already know a little something about Custer, about the highlights of the Little Bighorn, and so she feels free to direct your attention elsewhere, to other, more shadowed corners. “If you truly want to understand the battle and my place in it, he writes now to the boy, you must understand the dreams and jokes and stories that we bore within us. You must see how, as we shared them, they formed a kind of landscape.”
Not incidentally, Delia Falconer is coming to her very-American subject as an Australian. Worth mentioning only insofar as the number of Australian novelists who have successfully made the jump across the pond to Yank bookstores is appallingly small. Her ambitions in this regard have given her a hard row to hoe. Offhand, it’s been done successfully only by David Malouf and Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally. What the list lacks in length, however, it makes up for in sheer depth of talent. With The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, Delia Falconer should readily join their esteemed company.