Analysis (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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.)
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Butler has used story tides that are common to articles in the weekly tabloid newspapers available in supermarkets, and the stories contain elements from various sensationalized urban legends of the late twentieth century. Along with fictionalized accounts of movie stars' infidelities or health or contract woes, the tabloids have for years proffered tales of John F. Kennedy being alive but incognito somewhere, of aliens abducting ordinary people from their homes or cars, of biblical prophecies of doomsday, of astronomers' prophecies of meteors some day to hit the earth, of sightings of Elvis Presley, of boats and aircraft and their crews being lost in the Atlantic region called the Bermuda Triangle, and so on.
Among the stories, Butler weaves occasional cross-references that connect stories which might at first reading seem quite unrelated, threading just enough familiarity through disparate works to make the book title accurate. In addition to the clearly mirrored effects of the Titanic stories, Butler's Edna Bradshaw thinks of making cookies for her spaceman, in terms that echo Gertrude's cooking contest situation in "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off. ..": "... just last week I got a prize-winning recipe, off a can of cooking spray, that looks like it'd put flesh on a fencepost." The Generation X-type narrator in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, Linus, who is so impressed by the threat of worldwide destruction by meteor, has learned of the threat from the editor of Real World Weekly—a sensationalist rag or tabloid— who is interviewed on a television show entitled Inside Scoop. The New York book editor who denies being a nymphomaniac has been so labeled by that very editor of Real World Weekly, and she uses a piece of meteorite on his desk as a murder weapon. The image of the rock from outer space crashing down from above serves as resolution for one story, title concept for another.
Within individual stories, too, Butler at times makes particularly adept use of images pertinent to the subject matter in play. The sexually active New York book editor, for example, describes her voice while seducing the tabloid editor as "slick as K-Y jelly," a lubricant with assorted hospital uses, but applied by the average non-medical user as a genital lubricant. Also, as Linus,...
(The entire section is 947 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Many people scorn the wildly sensational headlines of the tabloid weeklies that many supermarkets place close to their checkout stands, and yet as they wait to purchase their groceries, many become curious enough about the oddities and tragedies emblazoned across the newsprint to actually buy the papers. Celebrities frequently sue tabloids for misrepresentations or falsehoods that have been printed, and many ordinary folk at times try to make some money by offering to sell tragic personal stories or pictures of odd people or outlandish phenomena.
At first glance, by gathering a dozen stories with sensationalistic titles into a volume entitled Tabloid Dreams, Butler may seem to be doing no more than "cashing in"...
(The entire section is 1350 words.)
The tide of the collection, Tabloid Dreams reflects the modish and sensationalistic premises of the individual story tides: they read like the headlines of the yellow journalism tabloids commonly available at supermarket check stands. The often forlorn and isolated characters in the stories display in various ways the human need for a fulfilling relationship. The need may be that of a son longing for an absent father and struggling with the role of "the man of the house" as shown in "Nine-Year- Old Boy Is World's Youngest Hit Man," or it may be the need of the boyfriend or girlfriend in a courting relationship, as in "Every Man She Kisses Dies," "Doomsday Meteor Is Coming," and "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover," or it may be...
(The entire section is 576 words.)
In the New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Philip explains to a traveling Ethiopian court official a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a passage of sacrificial suffering. The Apostle Philip interprets the Old Testament material as a prophecy of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who suffered death to pay for the sins of others. The Ethiopian official, in the New Testament account, believes and asks to be baptized immediately at the roadside. Butler's Philip explains to the woman who sees both her father and her God in terms of Old Testament Law and rejection for her sexual activity, that her father is not God, and she should not construe her God as being as loveless as her father had been. In allusive...
(The entire section is 179 words.)
While none of the stories in Tabloid Dreams connect specifically with Viet Nam war themes of veterans or refugees, a number of factors in the stories do show parallels to or variations on characterizations or plot figures in Butler's war-related works. "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot" uses the idea of a human consciousness carried within a parrot. His "Mr. Green" in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992; see separate entry) uses the same premise. However, in "Jealous Husband . . .," the narrating persona is within the parrot; in "Mr. Green," the narrator is the woman who owns the parrot and recognizes her Grandfather's spirit in its actions. The frustrated boys in "Nine-Year-Old Boy is World's Youngest...
(The entire section is 310 words.)