I feel that in Brian Garfield’s The Vanquished I’ve discovered a minor modern classic. Kudos to Les Edgerton for cluing me in.
In the days before the filibuster was a parliamentary maneuver, it was a military campaign of doubtful legitimacy. The Unvanquished is a novelized version of one such that sought to conquer the Mexican State of Sonora and annex it to the U.S. The idea was to finance one set of American mercenaries to come at the state from the west, the other from the east, and for the two and to meet in the middle. As the title implies, it doesn’t quite work out.
The central figure in the book is Charley Evans, a young man of perhaps sixteen who ran away from a drunken stepfather and is drifting, working odd jobs. in 1858, He’s swamping saloons in the little Sierra foothill town of, Ironically, Sonora, CA, when we first meet him. The gold rush has kind petered out at this point, and he Charley meets a guy who’s recruiting for the arm of the filibuster that’s supposed to strike inland from the west. Charley joins because he doesn’t have anything particular going on in his life. He doesn’t really believe the get-rich-and-powerful promises the recruiter offers, but he doesn’t really care to stay where he is, either. So, he travels by land to San Francisco. By boat to San Pedro (SoCal), then joins the march to Sonora.
The march is very hard. They arrive at Caborca only to find themselves betrayed and hoodwinked. What happens afterwards you can read for yourself.
One of Garfield’s great achievements in this book is to put his novel on the shoulders of a man who is given neither to talking nor to self-examination. He has only occasional and shallow interactions with men, and even less meaningful associations with women. Thus, we spend a few hundred pages in a highly verbal medium–the novel–with a character who has almost no verbal life at all. Yet, we’re fascinated by his moods, his turns, his choices, trying to infer from almost no clues why he does what he does. Why doesn’t he quit, for example? In the end, we don’t know, and, probably, neither does he. He’s the very essence of Socrates unexamined life, and if you don’t believe me by the time you finish the book, don’t skip the epilogue. There, I will rest my case on that point.
This is a seriously significant historical novel about a little-known but emblematic piece of American history. Go for it.