Robert Olen Butler Critical Essays

Robert Olen Butler American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In a 1993 interview, Butler noted that his military service, his intimate encounter with the people of Vietnam, and his intense experience with the ravishing sensuality of that country turned him into a fiction writer. Butler said, “I had the impulse—that is the impulse of art which is a deep but inchoate conviction that the world makes sense under its surface disorder or chaos—I wanted to write to articulate that vision.”

Butler’s experience in Vietnam served as the basis for three of his major novels, The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs (1982), and On Distant Ground (1985). The major theme of this Vietnam War trilogy is the outsider abroad and at home, an alien in a country at war and an alien in his own country after the war. The three novels share characters, incidents, scenes, and symbols. In these novels, the protagonists are all soldiers who have served together as part of an American intelligence-interrogation unit stationed near Saigon.

In The Alleys of Eden, Clifford Wilkes is an Army deserter who escapes from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon with Lanh, his lover, a Vietnamese bargirl. Wilson Hand, Wilkes’s fellow soldier and the protagonist of Sun Dogs, carries the war with him in his soul to the oil fields of Alaska, where he is on an investigative mission that uncovers industrial espionage. On Distant Ground is the story of the court martial of David Fleming, a fellow enlisted man of Wilkes and Hand, who becomes obsessed with the notion that he has a son in Vietnam, whom he returns to that country to find.

In this trilogy, which critic Philip D. Beidler has called “a master vision of Vietnam memory,” Butler fashions archetypal scenes of war that personalize the Vietnam experience for the protagonists. In The Alleys of Eden, Clifford Wilkes is part of the American torture-interrogation squad (of which David Fleming is a member) that deals with a Viet Cong prisoner. The prisoner is stripped naked and lies near a stream. The American soldiers place a wet handkerchief over the prisoner’s face to torture him during his interrogation. The prisoner suffers a heart attack and dies.

For Wilson Hand in Sun Dogs, the scene is his kidnapping by the Viet Cong during a visit to an American-supported orphanage. The novel records Hand’s ensuing solitary confinement and eventual rescue by David Fleming in a mission where all of Hand’s captors are slaughtered.

In On Distant Ground, the crucial scene occurs between David Fleming and a Viet Cong prisoner, Tuyen, who has scrawled, “Hygiene is Beautiful” on a prison-cell wall. Fleming sees the graffiti as his mental link to Tuyen, and he liberates his foe, which leads to Fleming’s court martial and eventual return to Vietnam to find the son he believes is the product of an affair he had with a Vietnamese woman. In each case, these scenes are interspersed in the texts, creating the effect that they might be the memories of the reader, which Butler says is his aim.

In Countrymen of Bones (1983) and Wabash (1987), Butler chooses the burden of American history as his theme. Countrymen of Bones takes place at Alamogordo, New Mexico, and a nuclear test site in the nearby desert. The conflict of the novel is between Darrell Reeves, an archaeologist who wants to preserve a burial-ground excavation, and Lloyd Coulter, a scientist and disciple of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who helped to design the atomic bomb. The burial ground represents a vanished culture unspoiled by American culture; the test site represents the overpowering, destructive force of American culture. The conflict between Reeves and Coulter is also played out in their shared pursuit of a woman who represents the salvation of love for Reeves and an object of obsession for Coulter.

Wabash, set in Wabash, Illinois, the fictional version of Butler’s hometown of Granite City, is the story of Jeremy Cole and his wife, Deborah. Jeremy’s story addresses the economic and political exploitation of workers and the attendant forces of revolution. Deborah’s story concerns itself with domestic conflict, as she navigates the worlds of her relatives and her marriage in an attempt to reconcile the two. As in Butler’s other novels, the possibilities of love in Countrymen of Bones and Wabash are redemptive forces that free the protagonists from the cultural dictates of society.

The Deuce (1989), Butler’s sixth novel, is his first novel in which the point of view is that of a Vietnamese boy. It is written in the voice of a sixteen-year-old Amerasian boy, Tony Hatcher. Snatched from his bargirl mother in Saigon by his father, a former Army officer turned district attorney, Tony grows up as unhappy in affluence on the Jersey Shore as he was while a despised mixed-blood child in Saigon. Running away from home, Tony finds himself in New York City, where he must come to terms with his dual heritage and with America. In The Deuce, Butler addresses the theme of a collision of cultures by showing two cultures united in the mind and body of a single human being.

This theme is again addressed in all fifteen of the short stories that make up Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Each of the stories is told from the point of view of a Vietnamese expatriate living in the United States, an experience that gives resonance to the historical term “New World.” Just as the soldiers in Butler’s Vietnam trilogy are aliens in a strange land, so are the diverse narrators of these stories of love and betrayal, myth and tradition, wartime and peacetime. Butler shows that the experience of Vietnamese Americans is the human experience, with all of its pain and joy. Butler’s second collection of short stories, Tabloid Dreams(1996), takes lurid tabloid-style titles (“Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot”) and then transforms and humanizes the absurd premises by delving into the consciousness of the characters involved.

In They Whisper (1994), Butler explores the erotic reminiscences of thirty-five-year-old Ira Holloway, whose first-person narration is interspersed with his attempts to “give word to whispers” by recreating the voices of the women he has loved. The Deep Green Sea (1997), a love story with the Vietnam War in the background, creates a similar effect of multiple first-person narrations as Butler alternates between the points of view of Le Thi Tien, a Vietnamese woman, and Ben Cole, an American veteran. Mr. Spaceman (2000), a fantasy about the first alien visitor to publicly reveal himself to humans, seems in many ways distant from Butler’s other generally realistic novels, but may also be seen as merely an extension of his trademark theme of the combination of multiple cultures and psyches within a single character. Desi, the empathetic alien who absorbs the thoughts of twelve very different humans, is simply the most literal version of Butler’s many characters who need to understand alien cultures and ideas. Fair Warning (2002) was expanded from a short story commissioned for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope magazine into a novel about a forty-year-old female auctioneer’s search for love and authenticity.

Butler produced his third volume of short stories with Had a Good Time (2004), writing fifteen stories directly inspired by old American postcards from his personal collection. The postcards were all written in the early twentieth century, giving the collection an overall focus and unity, but Butler’s imaginative development of the brief messages produces a typically varied range of distinctive first-person narratives. Butler’s two decades as a teacher of creative writing are represented with a nonfiction guide for writers, From Where You Dream (2005), edited from a series of his classroom lectures.

The Alleys of Eden

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

A U.S. Army deserter and a Vietnamese prostitute flee Saigon for the United States, where their relationship cannot withstand the clash of cultures.

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...

(The entire section is 3907 words.)