Robert Olen Butler Butler, Robert Olen - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Alleys of Eden (novel) 1981

Sun Dogs (novel) 1982

Countrymen of Bones (novel) 1983

On Distant Ground (novel) 1985

Wabash: A Novel (novel) 1987

The Deuce (novel) 1989

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories (short stories) 1992

They Whisper (novel) 1994

Tabloid Dreams (short stories) 1996

The Deep Green Sea (novel) 1997

Mr. Spaceman (novel) 2000

Fair Warning (novel) 2002

Madison Smartt Bell (review date 23 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Madison Smartt. “At a Cultural Crossroads.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 February 1992): 3.

[In the following review, Bell praises Butler's ability to assimilate the voices of Vietnamese people who have immigrated to America in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.]

With A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler reveals his discovery of a pocket of cross-cultural peculiarity, which has become, for him, a sort of writer's paradise. The place is Lake Charles, Louisiana, but the people are all Vietnamese, immigrants who came there in the aftermath of the war, Northerners and Southerners, Buddhists and Catholics, drawn by a climate...

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Richard Eder (review date 29 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Seeing the Vietnamese.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 March 1992): 3, 7.

[In the following review, Eder compliments Butler's portrayal of Vietnamese people in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, drawing attention to his skillful evocation of the characters' sense of loss.]

For the Vietnamese immigrants in Robert Olen Butler's stories, distance is sentient. It buzzes inside them like a crossed telephone line, a haunting syncopation under the forthright American rhythms they are trying to learn.

Butler's Vietnamese live, for the most part, in waterside communities in Louisiana: Lake Charles, Gretna, Versailles....

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Kathleen Gilgore (review date 4 September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilgore, Kathleen. “As Others See the Vietnamese.” Christian Science Monitor 84, no. 199 (4 September 1992): 12.

[In the following excerpt, Gilgore extols Butler's poignant and respectful treatment of the Vietnamese people and their language in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.]

Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain makes deeper and truer sense of the bittersweet life of exiled Vietnamese. He concentrates on Westernized families who escaped in 1975. The only American fiction writer who has delved deeply into the lives and psyches of these new Americans, Butler is fluent in Vietnamese, and it shows. It's refreshing to see this...

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Cynthia McCown (review date 11 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McCown, Cynthia. Review of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler. America 169, no. 19 (11 December 1993): 18-19.

[In the following review, McCown notes the whimsical and romantic nature of the stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and asserts that the collection “celebrates courage and dignity.”]

Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning short-story saga of the American Vietnam experience is not set in Vietnam nor is it about war. Instead, this sometimes whimsical, often moving collection presents the first-person narratives of those who came away—Vietnamese from North and South now living in the United...

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Josephine Hart (review date 16 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hart, Josephine. “Beyond His Wildest Fantasies.” Washington Post Book World 24, no. 3 (16 January 1994): 1, 12.

[In the following review, Hart argues that They Whisper is a “meditation on the spiritual nature of sexuality” and praises the profound and disturbing aspects of the book.]

In literature, as in life, there are tales of singular passion—Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Antoine-Francois Prevost's Manon Lescaut. And then there are others, which tell of a multitude of amatory encounters—Moliere's Dom Juan, Casanova's Memoires and Guy de Maupassant's Bel-Ami. Robert...

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Robert Olen Butler and Missouri Review (interview date February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Butler, Robert Olen, and Missouri Review. In Conversations with American Novelists, edited by Kay Bonetti, Greg Michalson, Speer Morgan, Jo Sapp, and Sam Stowers, pp. 201-16. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in February 1994, Butler discusses his career as a novelist and the influence of the theater and playwriting on his work.]

Of the Americans writing about the Vietnam War, Robert Olen Butler is one of the few who focuses on the Vietnamese people themselves rather than the effects of the war experience on Americans and the American culture or psyche. This interview was conducted in February...

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Julia Glass (review date 6 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glass, Julia. “Robert Olen Butler Depicts a Man in Search of Women and the Truth.” Chicago Tribune Books (6 February 1994): 3, 11.

[In the following review, Glass criticizes They Whisper for having a narrative and narrator that “seem ultimately adrift” and for Butler's sense of humor that disappears as the novel progresses.]

Robert Olen Butler's ambitious, risky new novel is the rhapsodically uninhibited memoir of Ira Holloway, a 35-year-old man obsessed by the sexual encounters of his past. Proclaiming his compulsion “to tell the truth about my life in this body of mine, and I have to tell it in the ways that it really happens, through my...

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Robert Olen Butler and Michael Sartisky (interview date spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Butler, Robert Olen, and Michael Sartisky. “Robert Olen Butler: A Pulitzer Profile.” In The Future of Southern Letters, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe, pp. 155-69. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in spring 1994, Butler discusses his career, how winning the Pulitzer Prize has affected his life, and the importance of landscapes in his writing.]

Robert Olen Butler was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his volume of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Born in 1945 in Granite City, Illinois, Mr. Butler served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army counterintelligence...

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Mark Ford (review date 12 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Purple Days.” London Review of Books 16, no. 9 (12 May 1994): 24-5.

[In the following review, Ford compares the stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain to other works focusing on the Vietnam War, praising Butler's unique and subtle treatment of South Vietnamese immigrants.]

George Bush's proud declaration that by bombing fleeing Iraqi soldiers America had ‘kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,’ was one of the more startling instances from recent years of the Vietnam War's continuing hold on the American imagination. One could just about suspend disbelief when Sylvester Stallone set about rewriting history, but it was...

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Helen Heritage August (review date August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: August, Helen Heritage. “Over the Wall.” Australian Book Review, no. 163 (August 1994): 52-3.

[In the following review, August offers a positive assessment of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, complimenting Butler for undertaking the challenge of writing from the perspective of various Vietnamese people.]

Not so long ago I submitted to a literary journal a story that was narrated by a Javanese woman recounting her experiences when, as a fourteen year old girl, revolution swept her country. The story was rejected, the main reason being that the editor felt uncomfortable with the idea of the first-person narrative being written from the perspective...

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Lorrie Smith (essay date spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Lorrie. “The Rhythms of Timeless Desire (No Phallus Necessary).” New England Review 17, no. 2 (spring 1995): 175-80.

[In the following essay, Smith asserts that They Whisper is a well-written, complex novel that must be read in a post-Vietnam War context.]

A number of Vietnam veteran writers who established literary reputations in novels, stories, poems, and memoirs of the war have moved to other ground. Astute readers discern, however, that Vietnam is often a shadow presence for writers like Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, Philip Caputo, and Stephen Wright, even when they are not writing explicitly about the war. Those veterans who have...

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Jonathan Penner (review date 10 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Penner, Jonathan. “Amazing Tales from the Check-Out Line.” Washington Post Book World 26, no. 45 (10 November 1996): 1, 12.

[In the following review, Penner praises Butler for creating stories in Tabloid Dreams that poignantly examine such issues as human folly, rage, and grief.]

Tabloid Dreams is a story cycle, a clutch of tales spawned together. Though narrative links join only two, all 12 stories have a family feature: Each is based upon a premise—stated in its title—that suggests a tabloid headline.

There are those that exploit cultural fixations on JFK and Elvis, those that report Titanic survivors and close...

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Barbara C. Ewell (review date 17 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ewell, Barbara C. Review of Tabloid Dreams, by Robert Olen Butler. America 176, no. 17 (17 May 1997): 28.

[In the following review, Ewell commends Butler's portrayal of unusual characters and absurd circumstances in Tabloid Dreams.]

We depend on writers to show us the unreality of our lives. If they do their job right, they remind us how we always seem to be missing what is important in our efforts to be human. But when we live in a world as bizarre as contemporary America, with its hysterical machines and ironic facades, then the writer's work becomes a bit tricky. How do you expose unreality in a world devoted to counterfeit and substitution? How can...

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Susan Balée (review date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Balée, Susan. “Days of Whine and Posers.” Hudson Review 50, no. 2 (summer 1997): 341-42.

[In the following excerpt, Balée compliments the wit, originality, and distinctive characterizations in Tabloid Dreams, praising the work as a taut and fluid collection of stories.]

Lucky (though red-eyed) reviewer: she finds Tabloid Dreams by Robert Olen Butler. Wow. Every story in this collection deserves a prize. Originality, humor, distinctive voices, drop-dead prose—Butler possesses all of these qualities, and he lends them to every story. This is the only collection of short fiction I read that didn’t have a flabby midsection. But, like Thon's...

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Peter Stanford (review date 17 August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Stanford, Peter. “She Keeps an Eye on Her Man. It's In a Jar by His Bed.” London Observer (17 August 1997): 15.

[In the following review, Stanford praises the “engrossing, amusing, highly polished” stories in Tabloid Dreams, but notes that the overall tone of the “ultimately unsettling” volume is poignant and tragic.]

My mother believes her own dead mother is watching her from beyond the grave. Grandma Fleming, she is convinced, has come back as the friendly magpie that is always sitting on the car in the drive, peering through the sitting room window. The family think it a crazy idea, but Robert Olen Butler will understand. He writes in...

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Susie Linfield (review date 25 January 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Linfield, Susie. “Speed Read.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 January 1998): 4.

[In the following review, Linfield criticizes The Deep Green Sea for rehashing themes Butler has previously addressed, such as erotic love, suicide, the Vietnam War, and memory.]

The Deep Green Sea opens with Le Thi Tien, a 26-year-old Vietnamese girl, in bed with Benjamin Cole, a 48-year-old American vet. They are strangers, and they make love: the passionate, earth-moving, life-shattering kind. Tien has told Ben three things: that she is a virgin; that her mother, who was a prostitute, is dead; and that her father, whom she never met and who was an American...

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Thomas Bonner (review date 20 June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bonner, Thomas. Review of The Deep Green Sea, by Robert Olen Butler. America 178, no. 21 (20 June 1998): 31.

[In the following review, Bonner offers a plot overview of The Deep Green Sea, commending Butler's development of an ensemble cast, but criticizing the book's lack of action.]

Vietnam has entered the U.S. literary and historical imagination with nearly as strong a force as the Civil War. Major American writers like William Faulkner have used the Civil War to probe the transformation of a Southern self into an American one. Most recently, Charles Frazier in his novel Cold Mountain revives the Civil War more for its metaphorical...

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Ron Charles (review date 6 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “First Contact—Coming to a Planet Near You.” Christian Science Monitor (6 January 2000): 21.

[In the following review, Charles offers a positive assessment of Mr. Spaceman, noting the elements of “sweet absurdity, social criticism, and theological speculation” in the novel.]

Robert Olen Butler does not seem like a wacky man. He is a college professor. He writes about Vietnam. He won a Pulitzer Prize. He probably pays his taxes and mows the lawn dutifully.

Perhaps only alien intervention can explain this tender novel about an extraterrestrial named Desi who comes to Earth with important news for humanity. Imagine...

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Kit Reed (review date 16 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reed, Kit. “Out of This World.” Washington Post Book World 30, no. 3 (16 January 2000): 3.

[In the following review, Reed compliments Butler's depiction of humor, intelligence, and raw emotion in Mr. Spaceman, but notes that the novel's premise is silly and clichéd.]

Imagine a cosmic messenger with the bug eyes and bland, upturned grin of the ubiquitous American smiley face, a loose grip on American vernacular and a mission to change the world. Well, if not change it, then at least issue a warning. The alien in Robert Olen Butler's new novel, Mr. Spaceman, has come to Earth to say some of the same things Klaatu did in the '50s camp classic...

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Jonathan Levi (review date 23 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. Review of Mr. Spaceman, by Robert Olen Butler. Los Angeles Times (23 January 2000): L1.

[In the following review, Levi criticizes Mr. Spaceman for the failure of its alien protagonist to examine cultures and societies outside of America.]

The good news for all you folks who read about Edna Bradshaw of Bovary, Alabama, in Robert Olen Butler's Tabloid Dreams is that she's back [in Mr. Spaceman]. The 1996 short story “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” in that collection was Edna's first-person account of her third-kind encounter with a spaceman. Back then, Edna was a fortysomething hairdresser living in a trailer park...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Eder, Richard. “Going, Going, Gone.” New York Times Book Review 107, no. 1 (17 February 2002): 18-19.

Eder describes Fair Warning as “a cross between a comedy of manners and a philosophic comedy,” but notes that the novel's “success is uneven.”

Gehr, Richard. “The Wizard of Loneliness.” Village Voice 41, no. 49 (3 December 1996): 57.

Gehr argues that the stories in Butler's Tabloid Dreams resonate as a whole even though they do not stand well on their own.

Review of Fair Warning, by Robert Olen Butler. Publishers Weekly 248, no. 43 (22...

(The entire section is 162 words.)