Robert Olen Butler Short Fiction Analysis
Robert Olen Butler’s literary concerns have focused on human relationships, especially those between men and women, on American culture, and on Vietnam. Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain deals with the Vietnamese who came to America after the war: first with American attitudes toward the country’s unsuccessful efforts to halt communism in Vietnam, next with the problems of people living in an alien culture and trying to adapt to their new country while maintaining their Vietnamese values and customs. Butler has great sympathy for these displaced persons—for their sensitivity, the rich culture they left behind, and their hardships in America. He treats all of them, from the Saigon “bar girl” to the newly successful businessman, with respect.
Tabloid Dreams uses the device of the shocking headlines often used by tabloids to lure readers: invasions from outer space, dead presidents found to be alive on desert islands, bizarre love relationships. Butler presents the bizarre claims literally; a Titanic victim is actually present as a spirit inhabiting a waterbed. The effects are sometimes comic—a dead husband returning as a parrot to spy on his wife—but often even the comedy has a serious edge as Butler views the American culture that takes such headlines seriously.
“Crickets,” from A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, represents in miniature many of the themes of this collection. In the story, the narrator and his wife have escaped during Saigon’s fall to the North Vietnamese. Now the family live in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Still the narrator feels like an outsider; he is smaller than most American men, and he dislikes his American name, Ted. Most worrisome, however, is his son’s complete assimilation into American culture. Young Bill speaks no Vietnamese and acts like his American-born schoolmates. His father, eager to connect the boy with his cultural past, suggests a game he himself once played—cricket fighting. They spend a happy morning looking for the large crickets called charcoal crickets and for the small brown fire crickets. Bill, however, worries about getting his new Nike sneakers dirty and at last wanders off, bored. Moreover, they never find any fire crickets, the small, tenacious fighters most admired by children in Vietnam. The fire crickets not only suggest Ted’s youth but also, in their willingness to battle the larger charcoal crickets, recall the outnumbered South Vietnamese army; they even suggest the comparatively small stature of the Vietnamese in America. Ted’s final “See you later” to his son indicates his resigned acceptance of Bill’s identity as an American boy.
“The American Couple”
The ironies of “The American Couple” are many layered; Butler examines the relationship between a Vietnam-born couple and their American-born counterparts who find themselves staying at the same resort hotel in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. (The two wives have won their trips on that most American of television experiences, a game show.)...
(The entire section is 1287 words.)