Rick Bass is a writer known for his intense concern for the natural world, a concern evinced in both his fiction and his nonfiction. In The Diezmo, his second novel, Bass turns his imagination toward the historical world and recreates an event that informed the early days of the Texas Republic in the nineteenth century. Bass's Texas in this novel is the post-Alamo Texas, the Texas seeking independence and status and identity; for this moment, Texas is not yet a part of the United States and is recognized only partially as “American”—indeed, what that very word means is unclear and slippery. Those Americans who live in this territory find themselves wounded by their war with Mexico. As a result, the spirit of the men and women—but the men, especially, in this novel—is alive with the desire for a kind of vengeance.
The Diezmo is, then, the story of one attempt to slake some of that desire. The Mier Expedition was an historical venture put together by men who saw themselves as committed to and engaged in a just cause. Their vision was heroic, their hearts middling clean, their motives a muddle of heroism and greed and jingoism. It is this mix of impulses which Bass finds so intriguing and which he explores through the voice of his narrator, a survivor of the expedition who looks back now fifty years later and retells the bleak tale. What readers hear in this man's tempered and compelling voice (a testament to Bass's skill as a fiction writer) is the acknowledgment of failure, of a failed adventure. The expedition and all of its supposed Texan idealism finds itself picked apart by the reality that is Mexico. In this aspect, The Diezmo imagines a Mexican culture and geography that is mysterious, complex, and deadly. A certain kind of logic, or illogic, operates in this space which these soldiers of misfortune fail to comprehend. As a result, many of them die or disappear or suffer immeasurably.
In the end, Bass suggests that making that crossing of the Rio Grande inevitably changes a man, turns him dark and skeptical and resistant to the heroic urge. These men endure significant damage in Mexico; those who make it back to Texas have very little claim upon heroism or glory or accomplishment. Most of them have been changed, altered, emotionally and psychologically transformed by the experience. Certainly Bass's narrator is not the same man he was when he crossed the river into Mexico. Nor is the country from which he came the same country he knew before the expedition. Bass suggests there is an historical lesson here, one readers might well heed in the present day.