Whitman alum’s slim novel, ‘The Battle of Hillsboro’ teases, doesn’t follow through

Ellie Gold

Jesse Smith
“The Battle of Hillsboro”
Basementia Publications 2010
112 pages

I had high hopes for Jesse Smith’s “The Battle of Hillsboro.” I did. When I read the back of the book, I was excited. A group of college-educated but unemployed young men deciding to start a war and take over the world? I mean, I read the entire “Ender’s Shadow” series; of course this sounds interesting to me! Besides, author Jesse Smith is a Whitman alumnus, and he used to write for “blue moon.” It sounded promising.

But let’s face it, with a meager 112 pages, there is no way this little novel: with its clunky prose and trite dialogue: could have delivered what I expected. Perhaps if Smith had spent another hundred pages, he might have been able to infuse “Hillsboro” with subtlety and thrill: to take advantage of my suspension of disbelief and carry the plot long enough that it became a novel about the frailty of social bonds and the seduction of power and violence instead of a book about a quarter-life crisis performed with guns.

That is what this book ultimately boils down to. A group of drunk, semi-sociopathic men a few years out of college are disappointed with their lives and decide to “attain greatness”: not playing by society’s rules, but by throwing them out the window in favor of sex, drugs and a plot to take over the world. Frankly, it’s surprising that this plan gets off the ground at all, but Smith apparently “drew his initial inspiration from . . . Hamas [taking] over the Gaza Strip street by street with small arms . . . Why couldn’t that happen here?” Come on, Mr. Smith, that only worked because of the instability of the existing power structure. Of course it’s not going to work in the United States, where the military can be airlifted in at a moment’s notice. (Spoiler alert? You betcha.)

Drunk, semi-sociopathic men indeed: and only men, might I add. The women in this novel serve only as “female companionship” and are largely ignored except for a half chapter the narrator spends discussing their roles as sex objects and housewives. This narrator never even defends the group’s decision not to include women in their little militia: Apparently the inability of women to plan a military action is so obvious it doesn’t even need to be explained.

Turns out the group’s credentials for becoming military dictators are a great background in the classics. Another chapter is dedicated to a philosophical debate that largely consists of the four men getting high and reading from Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and “The Iliad,” as if Smith felt the need to prove that, for all their foolishness, these men really are college-educated. Unfortunately, since it reads like a transcript of some of the more ridiculous Core-inspired midnight conversations first-years are famous for having, this attempt falls pretty flat.

Reading this book was painful, but learning about the publishing company was perhaps even more so. Basementia Publications is a vanity press, which means that   Smith had to pay them to print his novel. Usually, the publisher pays the author because they are interested in his or her work. Vanity presses, on the other hand, are paid by authors to make small print runs, which the author then has to sell his or herself (though they may often pay an additional fee to the publisher for them to advertise the book).

Smith has been published before by Basementia; his previous work is called “Principles for a Self-Directed Society” and an associated blog is linked on the front page of Basementia Enterprise’s Web site. That blog is succinct, intelligent, eloquent and funny; it’s just a shame that only the succinctness transferred well to “The Battle of Hillsboro.”