Robert Olen Butler, whose father was a college professor, graduated from Northwestern University summa cum laude in 1967 with a degree in oral interpretation, then in 1969 completed a masters in playwriting at the University of Iowa. Serving in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1972, Butler was trained to speak fluent Vietnamese. During his tour in Vietnam he was assigned to military intelligence, where he reached the rank of sergeant. He also served as an interpreter for U.S. advisers.
Butler’s early fiction grew out of his experience in Vietnam. Though he moved on to other themes, he later returned to Vietnam-related subject matter for his most acclaimed writing. As a writer on the Vietnam War, he does not look at the experience from the usual combatant’s point of view. Rather, he has tried to know about and to portray the Vietnamese themselves, a task aided by his ability to speak Vietnamese.
Returning from the war, Butler worked as an editor for Energy User News and wrote his early novels on a lapboard while commuting to and from his job. His early work is dominated by the “Vietnam trilogy,” novels in which a minor character in one shows up as a major character in another.
The Alleys of Eden is told from the perspective of an army deserter, Clifford Wilkes, who hides out for several years in Saigon in the apartment of a Vietnamese prostitute, Lanh, with whom he lives in an erotic haven. With the withdrawal of American forces, however, he must leave the country or be left to deal with the victorious North Vietnamese. He manages to get both himself and Lanh back to the United States, where they discover that their relationship has changed. Now she is the stranger, and the dislocation they both face drives them apart.
Set largely in Alaska, Sun Dogs seems very removed from the Vietnam experience, though the central character in the story, Wilson Hand, is obsessed by an experience he had in Vietnam when he was held captive by the Viet Cong. Although he is rescued by his commanding officer (who later appears as the central character in On Distant Ground), his feeling of powerlessness remains. The suicide of his former wife and his own involvement in the dark dealings of an oil company in Alaska again force him to confront his powerlessness.
In the last book of the trilogy, On Distant Ground, David Fleming, Wilson Hand’s commanding officer, is tried by court-martial for assisting the enemy. After his trial (he is found guilty but is not sent to prison), he arranges to return to Vietnam—in the last days before the fall of Saigon in 1975—to find the son he had...
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