(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Butler’s first published novel, The Alleys of Eden, explores his often-repeated theme of the spiritual and cultural displacement of people by the Vietnam War. The book tells the story of U.S. Army Intelligence officer Clifford Wilkes and his girlfriend, Lanh, a Vietnamese bargirl.

When a prisoner he is interrogating dies of a sudden heart attack, Wilkes decides to desert; he feels that he can no longer believe in the United States, a country defined in his view by vanity and arrogance. He goes to live in an apartment on a Saigon alley with a bargirl named Lanh. She wonders why Wilkes loves her, as they are so different, both physically and culturally, from each other. Wilkes is as attracted to Lanh as he is to her country. For him, Vietnam has an integrity, a sense of self that he believes America no longer possesses. Lanh comes to understand this and tells Wilkes what he cannot articulate: that he can no longer go home because home is a place where a person feels innocent. She knows that Wilkes will no longer feel innocent in America. Butler writes, “The country he left was empty, the country he was in was doomed.”

During the fall of Saigon, Wilkes and Lanh flee Vietnam for the United States and an Illinois town. In the United States, Wilkes is a fugitive, and Lanh, who speaks no English, is overwhelmed. Everything about the Midwest scares Lanh, even the size of the people. She points out that she “did not feel Vietnamese in...

(The entire section is 493 words.)