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Once a World by Craig McDonald – Review

September 15, 2019

Once a World is the latest novel by Craig McDonald in the Hector Lassiter series. Lassiter is a writer and a warrior. He’s not a soldier of fortune, but he does find himself drawn to bloody conflict and violent intrigue partly as a means to inspire his writing. He was born on January 1, 1900, and his eventful life takes the reader through the twentieth century – one hundred years which certainly had enough brutal episodes for a budding adventurer and scribe to document or turn into fiction. Novels in the series so far, which has never been chronological in design, have put Lassiter in the Spanish Civil War (Toros & Torsos) and at the Liberation of Paris (Roll the Credits). For a comprehensive overview of the Hector Lassiter character, series and its inspirations check out my interview with Craig on this site.

Three Chords & The Truth (2016) brought the series to a nominal end, but now Lassiter is back again in Once a World, a thrilling portrayal of his early life which reveals how by the age of eighteen Lassiter was already a battle-scarred veteran of the Punitive Expedition and the First World War, events alluded to in the previous novels.

We are first introduced to Lassiter as a boy growing up in Galveston. A horrific event leaves him an orphan and he is raised by his wily conman grandfather Beau. While Beau is giving him an education in various complicated swindles, Hector’s first love, the beautiful older woman Hudson Bay Leroux, makes a man of him in the bedroom. However, it is not long before Lassiter feels the need to prove himself on the battlefield as well as in the boudoir. Some military experience, he feels, would help him find his voice as a writer. Lassiter is in Columbus, New Mexico on the night that Pancho Villa launches his foolhardy raid on the border town. Despite being underage, Hector signs up for the Punitive Expedition to capture Villa. At the age of sixteen, Lassiter finds himself travelling through the treacherous Mexican desert with the US Army. Faced with inhospitable conditions and vengeful natives who regard them as invaders, Hector and his comrades soon discover the reality of war, which is a far cry from how it appears to adolescent boys searching for glory. Lassiter wants out, but there is a problem. Due to events loosely connected to the Expedition, America is about to get embroiled into a far deadlier conflict in Europe, and Lassiter has made an enemy of a certain Captain George S Patton Jr. who is determined to put the young soldier in as much danger as possible. There’s a great gag about how Patton has to be restrained from striking Lassiter in a military hospital.

In addition to Patton, Lassiter also encounters such seminal figures as Ambrose Bierce, John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and one other important historical figure whom I shall return to in a moment. With so many characters present from the literary world, it is not surprising that Once a World is one of the best novels you could read if you want to learn about the process of writing. Lassiter writes in hotel rooms and hospital beds, on scraps of paper on lonely desert nights, and huddled down in mud-filled trenches by fading light. Observations and thoughts evolve into booze-fuelled anecdotes and then into the written word, and the reader begins to see how Lassiter will become a successful writer, as episodes of his life are part of a larger ongoing narrative he can only faintly conceive as a young soldier. McDonald beautifully captures the ironies of an author’s life: what a writer conceives in anxiety is often read and interpreted years later as hard-bitten wisdom. And there’s plenty of wisdom and other delights in Once a World. It is a brilliant evocation of a brief but bloody chapter in American history, and it can easily stand alongside the best of Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series in its portrayal of a lost, and too often forgotten, world.

Postscript: I said I’d come back to one historical figure who appears in this novel. Armand Ellroy makes a cameo as one of the soldiers on the Punitive Expedition. Armand was the father of James Ellroy. As his son would attest to, Armand was known for telling whopping lies, such as his claim that he was Babe Ruth’s manager. Armand owned a chestful of medals that even his family didn’t believe he had entirely earned on the battlefield. It is doubtful that Armand was ever part of the expeditionary force that tried to capture Pancho Villa, but he did serve in the military during the First World War. One of my favourite quotes from the many interviews James Ellroy has given is when he says of his father:

I saw a picture of him with his World War I outfit and, you know, there he is. I mean, that was him. It was taken on Armistice Day, so he was over there on Armistice Day. And there he is. That’s him. You can tell.

 

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