Told in a sparse, clipped, unornamented prose that makes the novel quite readable while at the same time perhaps doing a disservice to its scope, Crofton’s Fire begins with a young lieutenant, Michael Crofton, witnessing an event that presumably no surviving white man saw: the death of General Custer. Part of a 7th Cavalry unit searching for a trail for supply wagons, Crofton is ordered to investigate the circumstances of the rest of the cavalry. He finds Custer’s unit surrounded by Sioux, and is shocked to witness from a distance Custer’s death at the hands of his own men, bitter at having been led into a trap. Crofton escapes Little Big Horn with his life, but is soon plunged into a number of other escapades. In many ways, Crofton’s view of Custer’s last stand sets the tone for the entire novel. Over and over again, battlefields seem not to lead to honor and glory—although vivid proof of those abstractions may be found there—but instead to bloody death and moments of melancholy absurdity.
Ordered to contain a civil insurrection fought over a prostitute, Crofton is shot by the prostitute herself. Surviving against all odds, he eventually marries her. Over the next few years, Crofton is dispatched from his Washington post to assassinate a Cuban leader (happily failing to do so); he tends the tombstones in the newly laid Arlington National Cemetery; and finally is sent by General Sherman to serve with the British army in their war with the Zulus in Africa. Again and again, Crofton is sickened by the bloody battles he participates in; by staying true to himself and his family, however, he eventually earns peace.