Butler, Robert Olen
Robert Olen Butler 1945-
(Full name Robert Olen Butler, Jr.) American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Butler's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 81.
Butler is recognized for breaking from a tradition of Vietnam war writers whose works concentrated on American soldiers, the American public's reaction to the war, and the war veterans' struggles to reintegrate into American society. His novels and short stories broadened the scope of Vietnam war literature to include the perspectives of a cross-section of Vietnamese citizens. In his most acclaimed work to date, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992)—which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—Butler took the unusual step of constructing his narrative in the first-person voice of Vietnamese immigrants, drawing on his background as a translator stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam war.
Butler was born on January 20, 1945, in Granite City, Illinois. His father was chairman of the theater department at St. Louis University, across the river from Granite City. Butler attended Northwestern University, where he majored in theater. He graduated summa cum laude in 1967 with a degree in oral interpretation and received his M.F.A. in playwriting from the University of Iowa in 1969. In 1971 Butler served in Saigon, Vietnam, as a U.S. Army counterintelligence linguist, after completing a rigorous training program in the Vietnamese language. His linguistic skill enabled Butler to immerse himself in the culture of Saigon and allowed him access to elements of Vietnamese society that are not normally open to foreigners. His intimate knowledge of the language and culture of the Vietnamese people later helped Butler develop the authentic Vietnamese characters in his fiction. After returning from Vietnam, Butler held a variety of jobs, including working as a high school teacher, reporter, and editor-in-chief of a business newspaper in Manhattan. In 1985 he began teaching creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The large Vietnamese-American population in the Lake Charles area provided the inspiration for Butler's stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which was awarded several literary prizes, including the Pulitzer, the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Southern Review/LSU Prize for Short Fiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
A recurring theme in much of Butler's work revolves around the effects of the past on the present, and on history's ability to shape the future of both individuals and communities. His trilogy of Vietnam War novels—The Alleys of Eden (1981), Sun Dogs (1982), and On Distant Ground (1985)—is told from the perspective of several different United States soldiers during and after the war. The Alleys of Eden follows an American Army deserter, Cliff, who falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute, Lanh, as they happily live together for four years in the back alleys of Saigon. When Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese in 1975, Cliff and Lanh are separated, but they are later reunited in Speedway, Illinois. Unfortunately, due to their cultural differences and Cliff's fugitive status in the U.S., the couple is unable to regain the seemingly idyllic life they had together in Vietnam. A collection of fifteen short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain chronicles the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in suburban New Orleans, Louisiana, following the Vietnam War. Butler integrates Vietnamese myths and folklore with contemporary American culture to address such themes as cultural assimilation, displacement, loss, and memory. In the story “Mid-Autumn,” a pregnant Vietnamese woman compares her passion for a boy she knew in Vietnam with the ambivalence she feels for the American soldier who married her and brought her to the United States. As she relates these feelings to her unborn child, she suggests that Vietnam will live on her memory even though she can never return to her native land. The story “The American Couple” revolves around a Vietnamese immigrant couple who immerse themselves in American popular culture and win a trip to Mexico on a television game show. They befriend an American couple on their vacation only to discover that both husbands are veterans who fought on opposite sides of the Vietnam War. The two men become involved in a bitter fight—paralleling their wartime conflict—that leaves the immigrant couple wondering if they will ever truly be considered Americans.
Butler's fifth novel, Wabash (1987), represents a departure for Butler, as he turns his attention from the Vietnam War to Depression-era Illinois. The novel focuses on Jeremy and Deborah Cole who are struggling to reclaim their marriage in the aftermath of their daughter's death. While attempting to deal with the loss of their child, the Coles begin engaging in fruitless behavior—Jeremy sets out to assassinate the owner of the steel mill where he works, while Deborah writes letters to the rodents inhabiting their house. Eventually, Deborah learns of and then thwarts Jeremy's violent plan, in so doing repairing the physical and emotional link between husband and wife. With The Deuce (1989), Butler returns to his recurring theme of the Vietnam War. The novel features a sixteen-year-old protagonist, Tony, who is the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American father. Dissatisfied with his sterile suburban life, Tony runs away from his father's New Jersey home to live on the streets of New York City. While trying to come to terms with the direction of his life, Tony has to avoid the clutches of a murderous pederast who is stalking him. Like many of his previous works, They Whisper (1994) features a Vietnam War veteran protagonist, but the novel also addresses a relatively new subject for Butler—sexuality. The main character, Ira Holloway, reflects on his sexual fantasies and adventures leading up to his marriage to his wife, Fiona. In Ira's mind, sexuality encompasses all phases of life, including spirituality and death. His fascination with and love for women prompts him to revel in reliving his past encounters with the opposite sex. Ira's marriage to Fiona eventually becomes strained, and the two stay together solely to battle for control over their son. Once again departing from his Vietnam War motif, Butler's short stories in Tabloid Dreams (1996) are all based on mock headlines from a tabloid newspaper. Despite their seemingly ridiculous starting point, the stories reveal truths concerning universal struggles with loss, hope, and the search for identity. The Deep Green Sea (1998) follows the love affair of Ben, a 48-year-old Vietnam War veteran, and Tien, a young Vietnamese woman, as they make discoveries about themselves and attempt to prevent the past from destroying their present relationship. Mr. Spaceman (2000) continues the thread of a story from Tabloid Dreams, focusing on a Southern woman and her alien lover—now husband—Desi. In the novel, the couple transport a bus-load of gamblers onto their spaceship, in order to absorb their stories and their language. Desi is preparing to reveal his alien identity and he is looking for one truly happy human being to present to the world. In 2002, Butler published Fair Warning, a novel which follows the romance of Amy Dickerson, a successful New Yorker, and Alain Bouchard, a charming Frenchman who just bought the auction house where Amy works.
While Butler's early novels were not widely read at their initial publication, they were well-received by critics at the time. Reviewers have noted Butler's unique focus on events on the periphery of the Vietnam War, as opposed to the combat itself—central to many novels in the Vietnam War genre. Julia Glass has stated that Butler is “a masterly ventriloquist and a spinner of tales at once lyrical, humorous and accurately moving” and has noted “his skill at constructing suspenseful, psychologically absorbing novels—serious, satisfying books one simply can't put down.” Critics have been particularly impressed with A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, praising Butler's ability to speak accurately in the voice of Vietnamese Americans. Madison Smartt Bell has also noted the success of Butler's narrative technique in the collection, commenting that “[m]any of the stories work similarly, by mapping a Vietnamese legend onto an American situation. This technique is aided by Butler's ability to extend a metaphor or motif to the level of a metaphysical conceit.” Despite many reviewers' assertion of the stories' narrative authenticity, some scholars have argued that Butler is still an outsider to the Vietnamese culture and that such stories should be written by Vietnamese writers. Butler's work published after A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain has been met with a mixed critical response. Commentators have appreciated Butler's quirky humor—especially in the stories in Tabloid Dreams—and many have admired the originality of the collection's premise. However, reviewers have been extremely critical of They Whisper, calling Ira a one-dimensional, adolescent character and questioning Butler's technique of interchanging women and their roles in the novel. Some critics have also commented that Butler's later novels lack the unique characterizations and the narrative focus present in his earlier work.
The Alleys of Eden (novel) 1981
Sun Dogs (novel) 1982
Countrymen of Bones (novel) 1983
On Distant Ground (novel) 1985
Wabash: A Novel (novel) 1987
The Deuce (novel) 1989
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories (short stories) 1992
They Whisper (novel) 1994
Tabloid Dreams (short stories) 1996
The Deep Green Sea (novel) 1997
Mr. Spaceman (novel) 2000
Fair Warning (novel) 2002
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SOURCE: Bell, Madison Smartt. “At a Cultural Crossroads.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 February 1992): 3.
[In the following review, Bell praises Butler's ability to assimilate the voices of Vietnamese people who have immigrated to America in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.]
With A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler reveals his discovery of a pocket of cross-cultural peculiarity, which has become, for him, a sort of writer's paradise. The place is Lake Charles, Louisiana, but the people are all Vietnamese, immigrants who came there in the aftermath of the war, Northerners and Southerners, Buddhists and Catholics, drawn by a climate similar to that of their lost nation. The community they form in the new world gives the 15 stories of Butler's collection a sort of novelistic unity, enhanced by his sharp insight into their ways, their beliefs and their reactions to life among strangers in a strange land.
Each of the stories is a monologue told in a Vietnamese voice, and Butler, who served in Vietnam as an Army linguist, can reproduce these voices with a beautiful fidelity. With his mastery of the language comes understanding of various Vietnamese ways of thought. This book offers a rare and privileged glimpse of what the Vietnamese in the U.S. think of each other and also what they think of the rest of us.
“Fairy Tale,” the story of a...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Seeing the Vietnamese.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 March 1992): 3, 7.
[In the following review, Eder compliments Butler's portrayal of Vietnamese people in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, drawing attention to his skillful evocation of the characters' sense of loss.]
For the Vietnamese immigrants in Robert Olen Butler's stories, distance is sentient. It buzzes inside them like a crossed telephone line, a haunting syncopation under the forthright American rhythms they are trying to learn.
Butler's Vietnamese live, for the most part, in waterside communities in Louisiana: Lake Charles, Gretna, Versailles. The author himself lives and teaches in Lake Charles. Ever since he went to Saigon in 1971 as an Army linguist, he found his personal and literary vocation—unlike other writers there—less in exploring what it felt like to be an American in Vietnam than in what it felt like to Vietnam to have Americans there.
It is the Vietnamese voice that he seeks and that, in these stories, he has so remarkably and movingly found. What it means for these expatriates to come to a new country and function in it is more the setting than the theme. Butler writes essentially, and in a bewitching translation of voice and sympathy, what it means to lose a country, to remember it, and to have the memory begin to grow old. He writes as if it...
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SOURCE: Gilgore, Kathleen. “As Others See the Vietnamese.” Christian Science Monitor 84, no. 199 (4 September 1992): 12.
[In the following excerpt, Gilgore extols Butler's poignant and respectful treatment of the Vietnamese people and their language in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.]
Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain makes deeper and truer sense of the bittersweet life of exiled Vietnamese. He concentrates on Westernized families who escaped in 1975. The only American fiction writer who has delved deeply into the lives and psyches of these new Americans, Butler is fluent in Vietnamese, and it shows. It's refreshing to see this ancient and subtle language used with respect instead of GI pidgin.
Each of Butler's stories forms a poignant monologue. The Vietnamese characters take center stage and speak as if justifying their existence. Sometimes this didacticism is intrusive, but it may be unavoidable; the world view of the characters differs so greatly from that of the audience. Butler's characters appear to have adapted well to American life, but they nonetheless bear an overwhelming sense of loss.
In their nostalgia, guilt, and pain, they are no different from Westerners who have experienced wrenching traumas. But Vietnamese traumas find their outlet in a spirit world—a mental universe of unseen, powerful forces. This...
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SOURCE: McCown, Cynthia. Review of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler. America 169, no. 19 (11 December 1993): 18-19.
[In the following review, McCown notes the whimsical and romantic nature of the stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and asserts that the collection “celebrates courage and dignity.”]
Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning short-story saga of the American Vietnam experience is not set in Vietnam nor is it about war. Instead, this sometimes whimsical, often moving collection presents the first-person narratives of those who came away—Vietnamese from North and South now living in the United States—and offers tales of heroism not in corporeal battle but in the spiritual struggle for faith and hope in the face of betrayal and impossibility.
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is Butler's seventh work of fiction in a writing career that began with an acclaimed Vietnam novel, The Alleys of Eden, and which has explored other of America's political and cultural failures, such as the Depression era in Wabash. Butler's fascination with Vietnam began with his military service as a linguist in the early 1970's. His familiarity with the Vietnamese language gives this work its narrative conviction as Butler takes on the personas of expatriate Vietnamese from an aging bargirl to an AmerAsian teen to a...
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SOURCE: Hart, Josephine. “Beyond His Wildest Fantasies.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 3 (16 January 1994): 1, 12.
[In the following review, Hart argues that They Whisper is a “meditation on the spiritual nature of sexuality” and praises the profound and disturbing aspects of the book.]
In literature, as in life, there are tales of singular passion—Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Antoine-Francois Prevost's Manon Lescaut. And then there are others, which tell of a multitude of amatory encounters—Moliere's Dom Juan, Casanova's Memoires and Guy de Maupassant's Bel-Ami. Robert Olen Butler's They Whisper belongs to the latter category. It is a profound, disturbing and important book.
“The degree and kind of a man's sexuality reaches up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit—beyond good and evil,” wrote Nietzsche. But Robert Olen Butler's hero, Ira Holloway, has an almost messianic dedication to sexuality as a good in itself. They Whisper, Butler's first novel since his Pulitzer prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, is nothing less than a meditation on the spiritual nature of sexuality—its mystical power and its deep connection to death. In this, it is closer to the spirit of Blake than to that of Joyce, though its style is deliberately Joycean....
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SOURCE: Butler, Robert Olen, and Missouri Review. In Conversations with American Novelists, edited by Kay Bonetti, Greg Michalson, Speer Morgan, Jo Sapp, and Sam Stowers, pp. 201-16. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in February 1994, Butler discusses his career as a novelist and the influence of the theater and playwriting on his work.]
Of the Americans writing about the Vietnam War, Robert Olen Butler is one of the few who focuses on the Vietnamese people themselves rather than the effects of the war experience on Americans and the American culture or psyche. This interview was conducted in February 1994, shortly after Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), a book he recognizes as an artistic breakthrough for him. In the interview he talks about his development as a novelist, including the ultimate effects of studying theater and playwriting on his work. His theater studies led him to appreciate method acting, and his decision to adopt the first-person narrator in order to directly examine a variety of cultures and the experience of both genders is at the core of his development as a writer. He believes that fiction is a special kind of discourse that presents human experience as universally understandable and that the language and grammar of writing are sensual...
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SOURCE: Glass, Julia. “Robert Olen Butler Depicts a Man in Search of Women and the Truth.” Chicago Tribune Books (6 February 1994): 3, 11.
[In the following review, Glass criticizes They Whisper for having a narrative and narrator that “seem ultimately adrift” and for Butler's sense of humor that disappears as the novel progresses.]
Robert Olen Butler's ambitious, risky new novel is the rhapsodically uninhibited memoir of Ira Holloway, a 35-year-old man obsessed by the sexual encounters of his past. Proclaiming his compulsion “to tell the truth about my life in this body of mine, and I have to tell it in the ways that it really happens, through my senses,” he sets out to confront just about every symbolic nuance of sexual intimacy between men and women: sex as the most authentic knowledge of the hidden self; sex as a foretaste of death, as rebirth, as transubstantiation; sex as a struggle between joy and sin; sex as a realm of communion in which language fails us.
Incest, war, adultery, martyrdom, paternal love, divine desire and Catholicism all play roles in Ira's story, as do ostensibly, the voices of the women he has loved. Anyone who read A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the collection of stories that won last year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction, knows Butler to be a masterly ventriloquist and a spinner of tales at once lyrical, humorous and acutely...
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SOURCE: Butler, Robert Olen, and Michael Sartisky. “Robert Olen Butler: A Pulitzer Profile.” In The Future of Southern Letters, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe, pp. 155-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in spring 1994, Butler discusses his career, how winning the Pulitzer Prize has affected his life, and the importance of landscapes in his writing.]
Robert Olen Butler was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his volume of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Born in 1945 in Granite City, Illinois, Mr. Butler served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army counterintelligence translator. That service and his subsequent residency in Louisiana where he serves on the faculty of McNeese State University at Lake Charles were the basis of stories about Vietnamese living in America. Prior to A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Mr. Butler published six novels that, while well-reviewed, were never commercially successful, though they have since been reissued. These include The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Wabash, and The Deuce. His most recent novel is They Whisper. This interview was conducted in a single two-hour session in New Orleans in the spring of 1994.
[Sartisky]: Robert, I gather that winning...
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SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Purple Days.” London Review of Books 16, no. 9 (12 May 1994): 24-5.
[In the following review, Ford compares the stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain to other works focusing on the Vietnam War, praising Butler's unique and subtle treatment of South Vietnamese immigrants.]
George Bush's proud declaration that by bombing fleeing Iraqi soldiers America had ‘kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,’ was one of the more startling instances from recent years of the Vietnam War's continuing hold on the American imagination. One could just about suspend disbelief when Sylvester Stallone set about rewriting history, but it was disconcerting to find the President of the United States so clearly in the grip of the same fantasy of revenge.
The internal strife bequeathed by Vietnam has proved almost as intractable as the war itself. As everyone knows, more American soldiers have killed themselves—often after killing other people first—in the years since the war than actually died in battle. In Dispatches, Michael Herr describes meeting an ocean-eyed Lurp (a former member of a Long Range Patrol) who, between tours, would stick a hunting rifle out of the window of his parents’ home and draw aim on passing cars and people: ‘It used to put my folks real uptight,’ he tells Herr. In Thom Jones's ‘Break on Through,’ the incredibly...
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SOURCE: August, Helen Heritage. “Over the Wall.” Australian Book Review, no. 163 (August 1994): 52-3.
[In the following review, August offers a positive assessment of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, complimenting Butler for undertaking the challenge of writing from the perspective of various Vietnamese people.]
Not so long ago I submitted to a literary journal a story that was narrated by a Javanese woman recounting her experiences when, as a fourteen year old girl, revolution swept her country. The story was rejected, the main reason being that the editor felt uncomfortable with the idea of the first-person narrative being written from the perspective of someone from a different culture.
I disagree with this view. It is a view that I believe restricts a writer to recreating entirely from her own experience, gender, place, and heredity. Surely, it is the down-side of political correctness.
What a glorious relief to read Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The fifteen stories in this book by a Pulitzer Prize winner are told entirely in the first person, in the voice of Vietnamese people, male and female, young and old.
Butler has not only looked carefully at the people he portrays, he has the capacity to look deeply within himself.
He is well qualified to write of the Vietnamese, serving...
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SOURCE: Smith, Lorrie. “The Rhythms of Timeless Desire (No Phallus Necessary).” New England Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1995): 175-80.
[In the following essay, Smith asserts that They Whisper is a well-written, complex novel that must be read in a post-Vietnam War context.]
A number of Vietnam veteran writers who established literary reputations in novels, stories, poems, and memoirs of the war have moved to other ground. Astute readers discern, however, that Vietnam is often a shadow presence for writers like Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, Philip Caputo, and Stephen Wright, even when they are not writing explicitly about the war. Those veterans who have continued to develop as writers have found ways to express not only personal trauma but the larger schisms and crises which constitute the cultural legacy of Vietnam. For critic Philip Beidler, the magnitude of the literary enterprise by “Vietnam authors in their generation” constitutes nothing less than a redefinition of literary possibility in an age of narrative minimalism and postmodern exhaustion:
To look at that work of achievement is to see a single recurrent focus: the desire, born of their immediate sense of the impact of the American experience of Vietnam upon American cultural mythology at large, to reconstitute that mythology as a medium both of historical self-reconsideration and, in the same...
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SOURCE: Penner, Jonathan. “Amazing Tales from the Check-Out Line.” Washington Post Book World 26, no. 45 (10 November 1996): 1, 12.
[In the following review, Penner praises Butler for creating stories in Tabloid Dreams that poignantly examine such issues as human folly, rage, and grief.]
Tabloid Dreams is a story cycle, a clutch of tales spawned together. Though narrative links join only two, all 12 stories have a family feature: Each is based upon a premise—stated in its title—that suggests a tabloid headline.
There are those that exploit cultural fixations on JFK and Elvis, those that report Titanic survivors and close encounters with extraterrestrials. Many chronicle spectacular miscarriages of love—“Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband,” “Woman Hit by Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac,” “Every Man She Kisses Dies.”
Tabloid stories are sideshow freaks. They recount suffering so bizarre, and offenses of such enormity, that we can only laugh in horror. What fellow feeling have we for men who commit monstrosities or women who birth them? Far from sympathizing with such people, we quickly doubt that they exist at all. For of course tabloid claims are thoroughly fake.
But not so fast. In Tabloid Dreams Robert Olen Butler's agenda is to normalize and naturalize these freaks. After unembarrassedly...
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SOURCE: Ewell, Barbara C. Review of Tabloid Dreams, by Robert Olen Butler. America 176, no. 17 (17 May 1997): 28.
[In the following review, Ewell commends Butler's portrayal of unusual characters and absurd circumstances in Tabloid Dreams.]
We depend on writers to show us the unreality of our lives. If they do their job right, they remind us how we always seem to be missing what is important in our efforts to be human. But when we live in a world as bizarre as contemporary America, with its hysterical machines and ironic facades, then the writer's work becomes a bit tricky. How do you expose unreality in a world devoted to counterfeit and substitution? How can you tell which is which? Robert Olen Butler is one writer who seems to thrive on the challenge.
In his first collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, Butler sharpened the sense of strangeness by focussing on exiles. Part of what makes the stories in that volume so compelling (apart from the recognition that Butler is just a white boy from Illinois), is that the exiles are mostly Vietnamese, often women, and that they live in south Louisiana, a part of the country whose peculiarity is pretty much certified by the Cajun twists it applies to what passes for normal in the southern United States. In Tabloid Dreams, his second collection of short stories,...
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SOURCE: Balée, Susan. “Days of Whine and Posers.” Hudson Review 50, no. 2 (summer 1997): 341-42.
[In the following excerpt, Balée compliments the wit, originality, and distinctive characterizations in Tabloid Dreams, praising the work as a taut and fluid collection of stories.]
Lucky (though red-eyed) reviewer: she finds Tabloid Dreams by Robert Olen Butler. Wow. Every story in this collection deserves a prize. Originality, humor, distinctive voices, drop-dead prose—Butler possesses all of these qualities, and he lends them to every story. This is the only collection of short fiction I read that didn’t have a flabby midsection. But, like Thon's collection, it scrutinized bodies galore. Butler is not immune to the collective unconscious, he simply does more with it.
The opening, “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” begins with a disembodied voice floating in a strange body of water. “I’ve grown quite used to this existence I now have. I’m fully conscious that I’m dead.” The voice belongs to a man who never really lived in his body, so did not regret its loss with the sinking of the Titanic. He says as much, remembering the night of his watery death.
All through that night, the fear was never physical. I didn’t mind so much, in point of fact, giving up a life in my body. The body was never a...
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SOURCE: Stanford, Peter. “She Keeps an Eye on Her Man. It's In a Jar by His Bed.” London Observer (17 August 1997): 15.
[In the following review, Stanford praises the “engrossing, amusing, highly polished” stories in Tabloid Dreams, but notes that the overall tone of the “ultimately unsettling” volume is poignant and tragic.]
My mother believes her own dead mother is watching her from beyond the grave. Grandma Fleming, she is convinced, has come back as the friendly magpie that is always sitting on the car in the drive, peering through the sitting room window. The family think it a crazy idea, but Robert Olen Butler will understand. He writes in Tabloid Dreams of a husband who comes back as a pet parrot to observe his widow as she sublimates her grief in a succession of lovers.
In Olen Butler's disorientating but oddly familiar world, all conventional boundaries are down; between humans and creatures, life and death, reality and the fanciful imaginings of tabloid headline writers. I couldn’t quite decide if this Pulitzer prize-winning author had assembled a series of classic Sunday Sport style headlines—‘Woman Struck by Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac,’ ‘Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis’ and ‘JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction’—and then created whimsical, upside-down, occasionally dark-edged tales to accompany them, or whether the stories...
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SOURCE: Linfield, Susie. “Speed Read.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 January 1998): 4.
[In the following review, Linfield criticizes The Deep Green Sea for rehashing themes Butler has previously addressed, such as erotic love, suicide, the Vietnam War, and memory.]
The Deep Green Sea opens with Le Thi Tien, a 26-year-old Vietnamese girl, in bed with Benjamin Cole, a 48-year-old American vet. They are strangers, and they make love: the passionate, earth-moving, life-shattering kind. Tien has told Ben three things: that she is a virgin; that her mother, who was a prostitute, is dead; and that her father, whom she never met and who was an American GI, is also deceased. The first two statements are lies. The last one, which she fervently believes—it is, in fact, the sun around which her emotional life revolves—will also turn out to be untrue. And it will set the stage for what is meant to be the tragic love story of Tien and Ben.
Like the classical genre to which it aspires, The Deep Green Sea raises such fundamental moral questions as: What is the price of knowledge and of truth, and what is the difference between them? Do we commit a sin against others when we deceive ourselves? What happens when we try to protect those we love by lying to them? What is the price of memory, and what happens to those who attempt to extinguish it?
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SOURCE: Bonner, Thomas. Review of The Deep Green Sea, by Robert Olen Butler. America 178, no. 21 (20 June 1998): 31.
[In the following review, Bonner offers a plot overview of The Deep Green Sea, commending Butler's development of an ensemble cast, but criticizing the book's lack of action.]
Vietnam has entered the U.S. literary and historical imagination with nearly as strong a force as the Civil War. Major American writers like William Faulkner have used the Civil War to probe the transformation of a Southern self into an American one. Most recently, Charles Frazier in his novel Cold Mountain revives the Civil War more for its metaphorical possibilities and less for its own sake.
Although the Vietnam War lies too close in time for any significant romanticizing to have obscured the pain, it has continued to be a journalistic subject of numerous historical studies and the focus of much fiction. Most novels and stories do not center on the realism ordinarily associated with the historical novel; rather they use the war as a lens through which the readers might see the struggles of American soldiers splayed out thousands of miles from their homeland. Tim O’Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried offer ample evidence of this trait penetrating external realities to the longer lasting interior ones. Vietnam in the American experience...
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SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “First Contact—Coming to a Planet Near You.” Christian Science Monitor (6 January 2000): 21.
[In the following review, Charles offers a positive assessment of Mr. Spaceman, noting the elements of “sweet absurdity, social criticism, and theological speculation” in the novel.]
Robert Olen Butler does not seem like a wacky man. He is a college professor. He writes about Vietnam. He won a Pulitzer Prize. He probably pays his taxes and mows the lawn dutifully.
Perhaps only alien intervention can explain this tender novel about an extraterrestrial named Desi who comes to Earth with important news for humanity. Imagine the NBC comedy Third Rock From the Sun with a philosophical linguist as the lead.
Mr. Spaceman is a mixture of sweet absurdity, social criticism, and theological speculation. The novel opens in the final hours of Desi's study of Earth. He's been given instructions to reveal himself at midnight at the end of the millennium. (Unlike us, extraterrestrials have figured out that the millennium ends next Dec. 31.)
Desi's patient voice is informed by a deep sense of compassion and a hundred years of careful attention to American advertising. “I am still learning,” he admits humbly. “My task is to submerge myself in this planet Earth.”
His last object of interest is...
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SOURCE: Reed, Kit. “Out of This World.” Washington Post Book World 30, no. 3 (16 January 2000): 3.
[In the following review, Reed compliments Butler's depiction of humor, intelligence, and raw emotion in Mr. Spaceman, but notes that the novel's premise is silly and clichéd.]
Imagine a cosmic messenger with the bug eyes and bland, upturned grin of the ubiquitous American smiley face, a loose grip on American vernacular and a mission to change the world. Well, if not change it, then at least issue a warning. The alien in Robert Olen Butler's new novel, Mr. Spaceman, has come to Earth to say some of the same things Klaatu did in the '50s camp classic movie The Day The Earth Stood Still—but with a difference.
When Michael Rennie stepped out of that flying saucer, he was handsome and dignified, elegant in silver. Butler's emissary is considerably less impressive. The genial Desi descends to Earth in a trench coat to hide his physical anomalies and pads along in size-20 athletic shoes. Instead of manifesting in metropolitan centers, he skims rural America, touching down in supermarket parking lots and outside schlocky discount stores, picking up ordinary citizens for scrutiny. He even marries one. “My wife Edna Bradshaw” keeps house and whips up trailer-trash delicacies for her husband's captives.
Desi, who first appeared in Butler's Pulitzer...
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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. Review of Mr. Spaceman, by Robert Olen Butler. Los Angeles Times (23 January 2000): L1.
[In the following review, Levi criticizes Mr. Spaceman for the failure of its alien protagonist to examine cultures and societies outside of America.]
The good news for all you folks who read about Edna Bradshaw of Bovary, Alabama, in Robert Olen Butler's Tabloid Dreams is that she's back [in Mr. Spaceman]. The 1996 short story “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” in that collection was Edna's first-person account of her third-kind encounter with a spaceman. Back then, Edna was a fortysomething hairdresser living in a trailer park with her yellow cat, Eddie. One night, on her way back to her car in the parking lot of the local 24-hour Wal-Mart, she meets a spaceman.
“I am waiting for you, Edna,” he says, “because I study this planet and I hear you speak many words to your friends and to your subspecies companion and I detect some bright-colored aura around you and I want to meet you.” Being the kind of open and friendly woman that she is, it isn’t long before Edna has named the spaceman Desi (on account of his foreign accent) and not much longer before Desi takes her out for a cruise in his spaceship to “the spaceman's version of the dead-end road to the rock quarry, where I kissed my first boy.” The Edna of Tabloid Dreams,...
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Eder, Richard. “Going, Going, Gone.” New York Times Book Review 107, no. 1 (17 February 2002): 18-19.
Eder describes Fair Warning as “a cross between a comedy of manners and a philosophic comedy,” but notes that the novel's “success is uneven.”
Gehr, Richard. “The Wizard of Loneliness.” Village Voice 41, no. 49 (3 December 1996): 57.
Gehr argues that the stories in Butler's Tabloid Dreams resonate as a whole even though they do not stand well on their own.
Review of Fair Warning, by Robert Olen Butler. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 43 (22 October 2001): 41.
The critic offers a generally positive assessment of Fair Warning.
Additional coverage of Butler's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 112; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 81; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Short Stories for Students,...
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