Robert Olen Butler 1945-
(Full name Robert Olen Butler, Jr.) American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Butler's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 81.
Butler is recognized for breaking from a tradition of Vietnam war writers whose works concentrated on American soldiers, the American public's reaction to the war, and the war veterans' struggles to reintegrate into American society. His novels and short stories broadened the scope of Vietnam war literature to include the perspectives of a cross-section of Vietnamese citizens. In his most acclaimed work to date, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992)—which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—Butler took the unusual step of constructing his narrative in the first-person voice of Vietnamese immigrants, drawing on his background as a translator stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam war.
Butler was born on January 20, 1945, in Granite City, Illinois. His father was chairman of the theater department at St. Louis University, across the river from Granite City. Butler attended Northwestern University, where he majored in theater. He graduated summa cum laude in 1967 with a degree in oral interpretation and received his M.F.A. in playwriting from the University of Iowa in 1969. In 1971 Butler served in Saigon, Vietnam, as a U.S. Army counterintelligence linguist, after completing a rigorous training program in the Vietnamese language. His linguistic skill enabled Butler to immerse himself in the culture of Saigon and allowed him access to elements of Vietnamese society that are not normally open to foreigners. His intimate knowledge of the language and culture of the Vietnamese people later helped Butler develop the authentic Vietnamese characters in his fiction. After returning from Vietnam, Butler held a variety of jobs, including working as a high school teacher, reporter, and editor-in-chief of a business newspaper in Manhattan. In 1985 he began teaching creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The large Vietnamese-American population in the Lake Charles area provided the inspiration for Butler's stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which was awarded several literary prizes, including the Pulitzer, the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Southern Review/LSU Prize for Short Fiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
A recurring theme in much of Butler's work revolves around the effects of the past on the present, and on history's ability to shape the future of both individuals and communities. His trilogy of Vietnam War novels—The Alleys of Eden (1981), Sun Dogs (1982), and On Distant Ground (1985)—is told from the perspective of several different United States soldiers during and after the war. The Alleys of Eden follows an American Army deserter, Cliff, who falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute, Lanh, as they happily live together for four years in the back alleys of Saigon. When Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese in 1975, Cliff and Lanh are separated, but they are later reunited in Speedway, Illinois. Unfortunately, due to their cultural differences and Cliff's fugitive status in the U.S., the couple is unable to regain the seemingly idyllic life they had together in Vietnam. A collection of fifteen short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain chronicles the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants who settled in suburban New Orleans, Louisiana, following the Vietnam War. Butler integrates Vietnamese myths and folklore with contemporary American culture to address such themes as cultural assimilation, displacement, loss, and memory. In the story “Mid-Autumn,” a pregnant Vietnamese woman compares her passion for a boy she knew in Vietnam with the ambivalence she feels for the American soldier who married her and brought her to the United States. As she relates these feelings to her unborn child, she suggests that Vietnam will live on her memory even though she can never return to her native land. The story “The American Couple” revolves around a Vietnamese immigrant couple who immerse themselves in American popular culture and win a trip to Mexico on a television game show. They befriend an American couple on their vacation only to discover that both husbands are veterans who fought on opposite sides of the Vietnam War. The two men become involved in a bitter fight—paralleling their wartime conflict—that leaves the immigrant couple wondering if they will ever truly be considered Americans.
Butler's fifth novel, Wabash (1987), represents a departure for Butler, as he turns his attention from the Vietnam War to Depression-era Illinois. The novel focuses on Jeremy and Deborah Cole who are struggling to reclaim their marriage in the aftermath of their daughter's death. While attempting to deal with the loss of their child, the Coles begin engaging in fruitless behavior—Jeremy sets out to assassinate the owner of the steel mill where he works, while Deborah writes letters to the rodents inhabiting their house. Eventually, Deborah learns of and then thwarts Jeremy's violent plan, in so doing repairing the physical and emotional link between husband and wife. With The Deuce (1989), Butler returns to his recurring theme of the Vietnam War. The novel features a sixteen-year-old protagonist, Tony, who is the child of a Vietnamese mother and an American father. Dissatisfied with his sterile suburban life, Tony runs away from his father's New Jersey home to live on the streets of New York City. While trying to come to terms with the direction of his life, Tony has to avoid the clutches of a murderous pederast who is stalking him. Like many of his previous works, They Whisper (1994) features a Vietnam War veteran protagonist, but the novel also addresses a relatively new subject for Butler—sexuality. The main character, Ira Holloway, reflects on his sexual fantasies and adventures leading up to his marriage to his wife, Fiona. In Ira's mind, sexuality encompasses all phases of life, including spirituality and death. His fascination with and love for women prompts him to revel in reliving his past encounters with the opposite sex. Ira's marriage to Fiona eventually becomes strained, and the two stay together solely to battle for control over their son. Once again departing from his Vietnam War motif, Butler's short stories in Tabloid Dreams (1996) are all based on mock headlines from a tabloid newspaper. Despite their seemingly ridiculous starting point, the stories reveal truths concerning universal struggles with loss, hope, and the search for identity. The Deep Green Sea (1998) follows the love affair of Ben, a 48-year-old Vietnam War veteran, and Tien, a young Vietnamese woman, as they make discoveries about themselves and attempt to prevent the past from destroying their present relationship. Mr. Spaceman (2000) continues the thread of a story from Tabloid Dreams, focusing on a Southern woman and her alien lover—now husband—Desi. In the novel, the couple transport a bus-load of gamblers onto their spaceship, in order to absorb their stories and their language. Desi is preparing to reveal his alien identity and he is looking for one truly happy human being to present to the world. In 2002, Butler published Fair Warning, a novel which follows the romance of Amy Dickerson, a successful New Yorker, and Alain Bouchard, a charming Frenchman who just bought the auction house where Amy works.
While Butler's early novels were not widely read at their initial publication, they were well-received by critics at the time. Reviewers have noted Butler's unique focus on events on the periphery of the Vietnam War, as opposed to the combat itself—central to many novels in the Vietnam War genre. Julia Glass has stated that Butler is “a masterly ventriloquist and a spinner of tales at once lyrical, humorous and accurately moving” and has noted “his skill at constructing suspenseful, psychologically absorbing novels—serious, satisfying books one simply can't put down.” Critics have been particularly impressed with A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, praising Butler's ability to speak accurately in the voice of Vietnamese Americans. Madison Smartt Bell has also noted the success of Butler's narrative technique in the collection, commenting that “[m]any of the stories work similarly, by mapping a Vietnamese legend onto an American situation. This technique is aided by Butler's ability to extend a metaphor or motif to the level of a metaphysical conceit.” Despite many reviewers' assertion of the stories' narrative authenticity, some scholars have argued that Butler is still an outsider to the Vietnamese culture and that such stories should be written by Vietnamese writers. Butler's work published after A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain has been met with a mixed critical response. Commentators have appreciated Butler's quirky humor—especially in the stories in Tabloid Dreams—and many have admired the originality of the collection's premise. However, reviewers have been extremely critical of They Whisper, calling Ira a one-dimensional, adolescent character and questioning Butler's technique of interchanging women and their roles in the novel. Some critics have also commented that Butler's later novels lack the unique characterizations and the narrative focus present in his earlier work.