Before the publication of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), which eventually went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, Robert Olen Butler had the reputation of being a “writer’s writer,” but his work had yet to find a large appreciative audience. He had published six novels—The Alleys of Eden (1981), Sun Dogs (1982), Countrymen of Bones (1983), On Distant Ground (1985), Wabash (1987), and The Deuce (1989)—all of which consistently gathered good reviews but modest sales. As a mid-list author, Butler seemed fated for a long- term stay in publishing’s version of Purgatory. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book, however, changed all that. The book struck a deep chord in readers and critics alike. Butler had arrived.
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is a collection of fifteen thematically linked short stories, all told in the first person by a variety of Vietnamese exiles and expatriates living on the Gulf Coast near New Orleans. As an army linguist during the Vietnam War, Butler fell in love with the Vietnamese people and their culture, and this love was later honed by the writer’s craft into a striking chorus of voices depicting the fates of a people whose lives are marooned in two worlds. Oscar Hijuelos, himself a fine novelist, summed up the praise for the collection by noting that Butler “delves into the life of a community that is still very much a mystery to the American reader. With this book he gives us boththe spirit of a people and the insight and artistry of a compassionate and entertaining writer.”
Many of the same qualities are evident in Butler’s Tabloid Dreams. He employs a similar strategy by creating a series of first-person narrators, all of whom are marginalized and at odds with the world around them. Butler also creates a distinctive unifying device by using tabloid headlines as titles for each of the twelve stories in the collection.
Like the Vietnamese immigrants in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the protagonists in Tabloid Dreams attempt to reconcile the familiar and the strange and accommodate themselves to a world suddenly thrown out of sync. Tabloid Dreams also echoes A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain thematically in its juxtaposition and collision of different worlds and expectations when Butler holds the fun-house mirror of tabloid headlines up to everyday life.
Unlike A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, however, Tabloid Dreamsfalls short of its promise. While there is ample evidence of Butler’s craft and compassion in the collection, Butler’s ambition appears to outstrip his execution. Taken as a whole, Tabloid Dreams is not so much a collection of stories as a closed system defined by dualistic principles. The twelve stories alternate between an equal number of male and female narrators, and every conflict is predicated on the clash between the conventions of realistic fiction and tabloid journalism. However original its intent, the orchestration of this dynamic too often becomes formulaic. The symmetries underlying the book’s structure are too neat and schematic and diminish the very real power evident in at least half the stories in the collection.
The titles function like lightning rods for an array of ordinary characters whose lives have inexplicably become defined by tabloid truths. These baffled protagonists include a jealous husband reincarnated as a parrot, a nine-year-old professional killer, a court stenographer whose glass eye is imbued with its own power of sight, a repressed housewife whose whole life revolves around baking cookies, an insecure lover haunted by a doomsday meteor, a book editor who suffers injuries in a car accident that cause her to fall prey to longings and passions she cannot control, an adolescent boy struggling to avoid reliving the life of Elvis Presley, the daughter of a fundamentalist preacher who kills others with her kisses, a Southern hairdresser pining for the spaceman who abducted her, and two passengers on the Titanic who are unable to escape the consequences of their final moment together. John F. Kennedy even makes a cameo appearance at a Sotheby auction where he watches Camelot dismantled as his past with Jackie is sold off piece by piece.
The strongest stories in the collection work with the precision and audacity of a Metaphysical poet’s conceit. In “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” a repressed minor functionary from a British colonial outpost in India is doomed to replay endlessly his last moments on the Titanic when he stood on deck next to an attractive, liberated American woman and was unable to break down his habitually proper defenses and simply bestow a human touch. He escorts her to a lifeboat and remains on board the Titanic without ever having learned her name.
He is doomed thereafter to live perpetually in a state without form—water—and Butler masterfully details his solitary travels from the depths of the ocean to become part of a cloud, rainstorm, river, dew, and eventually a cup of tea drunk by a woman with whom he finds a momentary embarrassing union before he is flushed away in her urine. The grotesque blends with the poignant when the Englishman ends up inside a waterbed and slowly come to realize that the thrashing and tumult above him come from two people making love. Although he recognizes that “These two above me were floating on the face of this sea and they were touching,” he finds himself forever trapped in unrequited longing.
Butler also creates an effective companion piece, “Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle,” told from...
(The entire section is 2358 words.)