War correspondent is a dashing hero in ‘The Hot Country’


Veteran war reporter is a dashing hero in this tale of conflict with Mexico.

Saddle up and check your ammunition. Robert Olen Butler is ready to take you to The Hot Country Mexico in 1914, in the midst of civil war, with U.S. Marines in Vera Cruz and a German ship full of arms in its harbor, and out to the west, beyond mountains and desert, Pancho Villa and his army waiting.

Your compadre is Christopher Marlowe “Kit” Cobb, a dashing war correspondent for a Chicago paper. He’s is a little Ernest Hemingway (if Hem didn’t take himself so seriously), a little Indiana Jones, a bit of James Bond and a whole lot of fun.

Butler, a longtime professor of creative writing at Florida State University, has experimented widely and playfully in his 18 works of fiction. He has based short-story collections on tabloid headlines ( Tabloid Dreams), postcards ( Had a Good Time), couples’ thoughts during the act of sex ( Intercourse) and the brief reflections of the beheaded ( Severance). He won a Pulitzer Prize for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a collection of realistic stories set during and after the Vietnam War. In The Hot Country, he returns to the field of war and adopts a most traditional form, the historical novel but he does it with brio, originality and a wicked sense of humor.

Cobb, a veteran war reporter, is in Vera Cruz to cover what looks like a U.S. invasion of its southern neighbor, which has been politically unstable for several years. But the invasion goes no farther than the city’s streets and zocalos, so the intrepid Cobb goes looking for reasons why.

Butler captures with vivid detail what a reporter’s work entailed a century ago, with no electronic media to smooth research and make contacts. If Cobb wants to interview someone, he has to track the person down and talk face to face. If he needs a document, there is only the paper version and probably only one of those. And his version of “cable news” is writing his stories a few sentences at a time on telegraph forms (and hoping they aren’t censored before they cross the border).

Butler also mixes in encounters with historical figures, like Gen. Fred Funston, “famous for bragging, after he made his mark as a general in the Philippines, that he personally strung up three dozen Filipinos without trial and he suggested we do the same with all the Americans who had petitioned Congress to sue for peace in the Far East.”

Butler writes thrilling battle scenes, cracking dialogue and evocative description, and Cobb’s narrative voice propels the story along at a breakneck pace, with cool wisecracks and passionate emotion. Best of all, Butler leaves the possibility of Cobb’s return swinging open like the double doors to a Vera Cruz cantina.

Colette Bancroft reviewed this book for The Tampa Bay Times.

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