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Robert Olen Butler 1945-

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(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

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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)

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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 similar to that of their lost nation. The community they form in the new world gives the 15 stories of Butler's collection a sort of novelistic unity, enhanced by his sharp insight into their ways, their beliefs and their reactions to life among strangers in a strange land.

Each of the stories is a monologue told in a Vietnamese voice, and Butler, who served in Vietnam as an Army linguist, can reproduce these voices with a beautiful fidelity. With his mastery of the language comes understanding of various Vietnamese ways of thought. This book offers a rare and privileged glimpse of what the Vietnamese in the U.S. think of each other and also what they think of the rest of us.

“Fairy Tale,” the story of a Saigon bargirl who comes to America as the wife of an American diplomatic functionary, turns on subtleties of language. As in many Oriental languages, a shift of tone in Vietnamese can change meaning altogether, a factor that leads to many strange utterances from the mouths of maladroit foreigners.

Miss Noi describes how she fell for her husband: “He wanted to say in my language, ‘May Vietnam live for ten thousand years.’ What he said, very clear, was, ‘the sunburnt duck is lying down.’ Now if I think this man says that Vietnam should live for ten thousand years, I think he is a certain kind of man. But when he says that a sunburnt duck is lying down—boom, my heart melts.”

Miss Noi makes a myth for herself around the idea of the sunburnt duck. But because of the misunderstanding, the myth is false, the marriage fails and she becomes a bargirl again, in New Orleans, this time. It isn’t exactly a life of suffering but a deadening plenitude of sex and unaccustomed luxury, represented to her by a surfeit of apples, which in Vietnam were a significant treat that only her GI lovers could provide. “In New Orleans, there are apples in the store and I buy them and I eat too many. The taste is still good but it is not special anymore.”

Land of plenty! There are enough European-Americans who have foundered on it too. Miss Noi meets one of them, Fontenot, an ugly, awkward, tongue-tied man who, oddly enough, was so happy in Vietnam he cannot readjust to life back home. In Fontenot her fable of the sunburnt duck is reanimated:

Once upon a time there was a duck with a long neck and long beak like all ducks and he lives in a place all alone and he does not know how to build a nest or preen his own feathers. Because of this, the sun shines down and burns him, makes his feathers turn dark and makes him very sad. When he lies down to sleep, you think that he is dead, he is so sad and still. Then one day he flies to another part of the land and he finds a little animal with a nice coat and though that animal is different from him, a nutria, still he lies down beside her. He seems to be all burnt up and dead. But the nutria does not think so and she licks his fingers and makes him well. Then he takes her with him to live in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where he fixes cars and she has a nice little house and she is a housewife with a toaster machine and they go fishing together in his little boat and she never eats an apple unless he thinks to give it to her. Though this may not be very often, they taste very good to her.

Many 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. Sometimes the conceit becomes comic, as in “Relic,” where a successful businessman acquires as his most prized possession one of the shoes John Lennon was wearing the day he was killed. But behind the amusing incongruities there's always a poignancy.

This mixture appears most prominently in “The American Couple,” narrated by a quite sober Vietnamese woman who has trained herself to wiggle and squeal like a successful game show contestant and has won a trip for herself and her husband Vinh to a hotel in Puerto Vallarta, full of other such winners. Her expertise in American pop culture helps them befriend an American couple. It turns out however, that the husbands are both veterans, compelled finally to re-enact the war between themselves in a silly but savage way. The bitterness of the mock combat forces both Vinh and his wife to consider just how far, and to what effect, they’ve been absorbed by the culture into which they’ve immigrated.

“The American Couple” takes up the issue of assimilation more directly than some of the other stories and also reveals its own doubleness more plainly. Butler's achievement is not only to reveal the inner lives of the Vietnamese but also to show, through their eyes, how the rest of us appear from an outside perspective, one more objective than our own. Any reader of this book will feel a strange and perhaps salutary sense of exposure, and be made to wonder, among other things, just who are the “real” Americans.

Richard Eder (review date 29 March 1992)

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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. The author himself lives and teaches in Lake Charles. Ever since he went to Saigon in 1971 as an Army linguist, he found his personal and literary vocation—unlike other writers there—less in exploring what it felt like to be an American in Vietnam than in what it felt like to Vietnam to have Americans there.

It is the Vietnamese voice that he seeks and that, in these stories, he has so remarkably and movingly found. What it means for these expatriates to come to a new country and function in it is more the setting than the theme. Butler writes essentially, and in a bewitching translation of voice and sympathy, what it means to lose a country, to remember it, and to have the memory begin to grow old. He writes as if it were his loss, too.

The 15 stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain differ considerably in weight and complexity. One or two are brief lyrics. In “Mid-Autumn,” a mother speaks to her unborn baby about a village boy she passionately loved and who was killed; and of the calmer love she feels for her husband, an American soldier who brought her to the United States. She tells a fairy tale about a prince who came down from the moon, who longs to get back and cannot, but who finds the Earth good in its own way.

There is the romance of a New Orleans bar girl and an American who fell in love with Vietnam during the war. His passion for her memories allows her to become a contented American housewife. Another romance takes place between a waitress and an older man, a Polish Jew who becomes her mentor in overcoming the strangeness of America.

These stories are graceful but a little too easy in their emotional movements and their lessons. Others are harsher and more effective. In “Open Arms,” the Vietnamese narrator recalls serving as translator in an American-Canadian program to turn captured Viet Cong into informants. One day, they bring in Thap. He is a man of tragedy; his wife and children were killed in a Viet Cong raid on a village. His burning devastation contrasts with the sleek South Vietnamese major who takes part in his interrogation.

“If I was the major,” the narrator recalls, “I’d feel very nervous because the man beside him had the mountain shadow and the steady look of the ghost of somebody his grandfather had cheated or cuckolded or murdered 50 years ago and he was back to take him.” Thap's tragedy is too big; his first allegiance had betrayed him. Now his new allegiance betrays him in a different way, a casual, pragmatic American way.

The sense of loss among the expatriates is played out in different fashions. In one story, the narrator has become a successful businessman, and put aside his memories of Vietnam to concentrate on his American future. The price he pays is emotional blankness. He dearly loves his wife, who lives closer to her memories, but when he embraces her, she is no more real to him than the itch in his ankle or his agenda for the next day.

The wife's grandfather arrives for a visit. She remembers how he used to carry her on his back; he represents all the tradition she left behind. Her excitement is dashed when he fails to remember her or to take any interest in anything except their new car. Her desolation spurs the husband to a redeeming leap of imagination; he hoists her up on his back and gallops around their garden.

There is poignancy in many of the stories but, except perhaps in one or two, Butler avoids sentimentality. A principal reason for this, and one of his main strengths, is his ability to speak in his characters’ voices—an almost perfect English but with odd strains and inflections—and to discover what they discover without foreknowledge or patronage.

One story is pure comedy. The narrator is a solemnly insignificant man with a beautiful and restless wife. In Vietnam, he ran a network of informants for the Americans. He used his position to warn off potential rivals; if they paid no attention, the Americans would receive a report of Viet Cong activity just where the rival worked or walked. An aerial attack would follow.

In America, of course, the narrator has no such power. So when a Vietnamese rival begins paying court to the wife, the reprisal has to be different. It is hilariously elaborate and utterly effective.

In a collection so delicate and so strong, the title story stands out as close to magical. It is narrated by Dao, an expatriate who is nearly 100 and lives with his daughter. His thoughts wander between past and present; he will die any day.

“Ho Chi Minh came to me again last night, his hands covered with confectioners’ sugar,” the story begins. Dao, so near death and with an unquiet memory of the past, receives visits from the ghost of Vietnam's founding leader. They had been roommates in Paris during World War I. Both had worked in the kitchen of the great chef Escoffier, Ho Chi Minh as an apprentice pastry cook. Ho's passion was his country's liberation; Dao remembers him putting on an ugly and ill-fitting bowler hat—and furious at having to do it—to go out to Versailles where the Peace Conference was taking place, and try to get the ear of Woodrow Wilson.

The two men went their different ways. The narrator became a Hoa Hao Buddhist, a sect of austere unworldliness. Its meditations take shape around the phrase: “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” Ho, of course, chose revolution.

Ghost and dying man are now together, each with his own sense of incompletion. The narrator has lived spiritually apart from his country's tragedy. And Ho? He was never able to make a successful pastry glaze. Thinking of politics, he failed to listen properly to Escoffier. He used confectioners’ instead of granulated sugar.

Through the words of Dao, Butler holds the two failures in equilibrium. To neglect a revolution and to neglect a glaze are two aspects of human limits. “I was only a washer of dishes but I did listen carefully when Monsieur Escoffier spoke.” Dao says. “I wanted to understand everything. His kitchen was full of such smells that you knew you had to understand everything or you would be incomplete forever.”

Kathleen Gilgore (review date 4 September 1992)

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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 ancient and subtle language used with respect instead of GI pidgin.

Each of Butler's stories forms a poignant monologue. The Vietnamese characters take center stage and speak as if justifying their existence. Sometimes this didacticism is intrusive, but it may be unavoidable; the world view of the characters differs so greatly from that of the audience. Butler's characters appear to have adapted well to American life, but they nonetheless bear an overwhelming sense of loss.

In their nostalgia, guilt, and pain, they are no different from Westerners who have experienced wrenching traumas. But Vietnamese traumas find their outlet in a spirit world—a mental universe of unseen, powerful forces. This alternative reality occasionally intrudes at moments of stress and dislocation: A translator in the war wonders if a turncoat Viet Cong is really a demon; a lonely housewife discovers that her grandfather's soul has transmigrated into a parrot; an elderly, dying man converses nightly with the ghost of his old comrade Ho Chi Minh.

Though Butler's book excels in presenting Vietnamese life, he is an outsider. It's too soon for the Vietnamese themselves to tell their stories. Like all immigrants the first generation is preoccupied with survival. The next generation of Vietnamese-Americans will produce anthropologists, sociologists, and journalists with a foot in both cultures.

Cynthia McCown (review date 11 December 1993)

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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 States—and offers tales of heroism not in corporeal battle but in the spiritual struggle for faith and hope in the face of betrayal and impossibility.

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is Butler's seventh work of fiction in a writing career that began with an acclaimed Vietnam novel, The Alleys of Eden, and which has explored other of America's political and cultural failures, such as the Depression era in Wabash. Butler's fascination with Vietnam began with his military service as a linguist in the early 1970's. His familiarity with the Vietnamese language gives this work its narrative conviction as Butler takes on the personas of expatriate Vietnamese from an aging bargirl to an AmerAsian teen to a 100-year-old man who dreams of his friend Hô Chí Minh.

These storytellers are linked to one another only in the most peripheral way. A common ethnicity and the circumstance of common residence in an immigrant community on the outskirts of New Orleans are the binding agents of Butler's book; his characters remain isolated, each giving his or her intimate account as if to the reader alone. Yet all are eerily connected in spirit by their respective visitations: ghostly artifacts and fleeting forms, which, like Proust's experience of the madeleine, evoke a totality of memory governed by a profound sense of loss. When powerful recollections and deep emotions are thus conjured, narrative authenticity can never come into question, and Butler, a consummate stylist, creates 15 complex and singular Vietnamese-American voices, devoid of affectation and marked by the personal particular.

Miss Noi is the compassionate bargirl whose hopes for marriage disintegrate when her American lover leaves her. Returning to her former profession in a New Orleans night spot, she recalls the apples, rare delicacies in South Vietnam, brought to her from the American military mess by the G.I.'s with whom she sleeps:

I hold an apple and it fills my hand and it is very smooth and very hard and it is red like my favorite aó dài. So red. … In New Orleans I buy many apples. I eat them whenever I want to. But is that memory not better?

When a former G.I. brings Miss Noi an apple and awkwardly proposes, Miss Noi's story becomes its title, “Fairy Tale.”

In “Letters from My Father,” a young girl who has finally been brought out of Vietnam by a devoted but emotionally distant father, ponders the “flat words” of the letters written to her over the years and her father's stiff greeting at the airport “like I was soaking wet and he had on his Sunday clothes, though he was just wearing some silly T-shirt.” She gains insight and courage from her discovery of a packet of letters written to the Government during the years of red-tape delay:

In one … my father says … “This is my wife and my daughter. My daughter is so beautiful you can put her face on your dimes and quarters and no one could ever make change again in your goddam country without stopping and saying, Oh my God, what a beautiful face.”

Sitting in a utility shed on a suffocating Louisiana afternoon, she knows that when her father comes from mowing the lawn she will ask him “to talk to me like in these letters, like when he was so angry with some stranger that he knew what to say.”

Dao, the ancient pater familias who, in the title story, is receiving relatives and friends for a final, formal leave-taking in the custom of his homeland, is visited in dreams by Hô Chí Minh, appearing as in their youth, when Dao was a dishwasher and Hô a pastry cook under the great chef Escoffier. Hô's sugar-scented hands open the casement of memory for Dao: the Carlton Hotel in London, 1917, Hô as a retoucher of photographs in Paris, and as a political leader, still “painting the blush into the faces of Westerners”; the wife now dead who, when “we were already old, we had already buried children and grandchildren,” lifted her silken gown on a sweet, hot night.

A recurring motif in many of Butler's stories is the formation of myth and the function of belief. The mother speaking to her unborn child of wizards and rainbows; the father retelling the story of the gentle dragon and the fairy princess who are the parents of all Vietnamese; the successful businessman whose prized acquisition is John Lennon's shoe, making the sign of the cross as he slips his foot into the relic of the martyr; the housewife who inherits her grandfather's parrot and possibly the care of his soul—all are possessed of a belief system that allows for spiritual regeneration in the aftermath of devastating loss.

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is calculated to be positive, even uplifting. It is a Vietnam story unlike any that has been popularized by the dark perception of our own collective American loss. As such, it may reflect too much of the romantic for some tastes. This work celebrates courage and dignity, but not in the face of ultimate defeat. Rather it expresses the essence of old Dao's main religious tenet: “The maintenance of our spirits is simple, and the mystery of joy is simple too.”

Josephine Hart (review date 16 January 1994)

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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 Olen Butler's They Whisper belongs to the latter category. It is a profound, disturbing and important book.

“The degree and kind of a man's sexuality reaches up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit—beyond good and evil,” wrote Nietzsche. But Robert Olen Butler's hero, Ira Holloway, has an almost messianic dedication to sexuality as a good in itself. They Whisper, Butler's first novel since his Pulitzer prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, is nothing less than a meditation on the spiritual nature of sexuality—its mystical power and its deep connection to death. In this, it is closer to the spirit of Blake than to that of Joyce, though its style is deliberately Joycean.

Like all fundamentalists, Ira allows no other god. His incantations have the rhythmic repetition of long prayers. “Eroticism is the affirmation of life all the way into death,” wrote Georges Bataille, creator of the erotic masterpiece Histoire de l’oeil. And Ira, while singing out his joy in sexual encounters with prostitutes in Vietnam, or in his erotic tableaux of actual and imagined lovers, embodies that notion of the ecstatic. Real life slips away when Ira contemplates his goddess, who—whatever her shape, race or age—is always Aphrodite.

In the French writer Luce Irigaray's phrase, Ira has a “phallic gaze.” And his gaze falls everywhere. Even the sight of a cabbage in a supermarket evokes a maelstrom of desire—representing as it does to Ira, a luminous, verdant version of female genitalia. Ira's inner ear is also a highly tuned mechanism that detects irresistible erotic cadences in the voice of every female—even in a disembodied voice at a checkout counter. In his monologuist's voice, and in the women's voices he regularly and convincingly assumes, the same hymn resounds: “He is fire there and He is water there and I let go to Him and I fall with Him into the dark and I whisper to Him, At last.

Fiona Price, beautiful, clever and sexually voracious, explodes into Ira's enclosed world of whispering women. She seductively quotes Yeats on sex and death, and expertly discusses Cezanne and Van Gogh. Sadly for Ira, she is also neurotically, violently jealous. Fiona is a complex, indeed contradictory character: She is sexually passionate, although the victim of abuse as a child; she is highly educated in the history of art, yet is capable of resigning in protest over an exhibition of erotic paintings at her Soho gallery.

Ira and Fiona are both experienced lovers; there is a desperate sadness about their search for an emblematic sexual variation that will “consecrate” their relationship. Intercourse during menstruation, with all its primitive symbolism, leads instantly to Ira's fateful decision to marry Fiona. After marriage, the story of Ira and Fiona becomes darker and more disturbing. The birth of their son, John, is the catalyst for an explosion of traumatic childhood memories, which propel Fiona into increasingly bizarre behavior. Her latent Irish Catholicism takes possession of her. And though, in some hideous inversion of desire, she insists on nightly intercourse with a repelled Ira, during the day, she subtly educates John in sexual guilt.

The eternal battle lines between libertine and religious fanatic are now drawn between the couple as they proceed to a harrowing duel for their son's soul. Ira is horrified lest, as in Blake's “Garden of Love,” John will discover “Thou shalt not writ over the door.” His fear leads him into a deeply unwise world of secrets with John. “My little guy, we have to have a little secret now … Mummy needs to do some things in the church and we have to go along.” Ira increasingly despairs of his marriage to Fiona and hates the “fetid motherliness of her.” Nevertheless, he decides to stay, fearing he would lose custody in a divorce, and prays to God “to give me some way to survive this life I have been led to, survive without offering my only son up to sacrifice.”

Women from his past return to succor him. Ira's mind—a cultivated garden of intricately woven memories of sexual encounters and lyrical dreams of women he has never known—remains his place of refuge, his private monastery for the contemplation of Eros.

Sadly for Ira Holloway, in this powerful, monumental work, Blake's “road of excess” leads to a bitter “palace of wisdom.”

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

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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 1994, shortly after Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), a book he recognizes as an artistic breakthrough for him. In the interview he talks about his development as a novelist, including the ultimate effects of studying theater and playwriting on his work. His theater studies led him to appreciate method acting, and his decision to adopt the first-person narrator in order to directly examine a variety of cultures and the experience of both genders is at the core of his development as a writer. He believes that fiction is a special kind of discourse that presents human experience as universally understandable and that the language and grammar of writing are sensual and emotional. Successful literature, to Butler, is not created through the development of ideas but through deep immersion of the artist's senses in a shared, unconscious pool of experiences with his characters. They Whisper (1994) is a controversial tour de force of sexual energy in which the first person male narrator lapses into the voices of “all the women he ever loved.” Tabloid Dreams (1996), his most recent collection of stories, is written from the points of view of a series of characters imagined from the outrageous headlines of tabloid newspapers.

[Interviewer]: Your father was the chair of the theater department at St. Louis University and you grew up in Granite City, Illinois, the quintessential factory or blue-collar town.

[Butler]: I spent summers working in the Granite City steel mill. As I grew up I was every bit as comfortable talking Cardinals baseball with fellow members of the labor gang at the blast furnace as I was talking aesthetic theory with my father's colleagues at St. Louis University. Granite City is not a racially mixed city but it's full of exiles from the Deep South. There were forty thousand people in the city at that time and one high school, and I was the student-body president so I had good friends through the whole socioeconomic range. The sense of cultural collision that you find particularly in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain I think flows from not just my experience in Vietnam but from my very childhood.

You went to school at Northwestern University, first as a theater major, an actor. Eventually you took a master's degree in playwriting from the University of Iowa. What changed your direction?

I was more interested in acting than anything else when I was in high school. I went off to Northwestern in the fall of’63. Northwestern was, and still is, one of the premier training grounds for professional theater people. In that first year I was in four of the six major productions and had a major role in one of them, which was quite good. But into my sophomore year, I became restless with acting. I wanted to write, and since I was working in the theater I just assumed that the theater was what I should write for. On my twenty-first birthday, January of 1966, I was living at 626 Library Place in the top floor of a rooming house run by a very unusual old bachelor of a high school English teacher. I looked out over the snowy rooftops of Evanston and said, “Well, if you really think you’re going to be a writer, you’d better write something.” So I sat down and wrote, in the next couple of months, a full-length play called The Rooming House about that house and the people there. By the time I finished my master's at the University of Iowa, I had written a dozen full-length plays. The following eleven got worse and worse. I was a terrible playwright because I was in fact a nascent novelist trying to work in the wrong medium.

What's the difference?

Plays and movies are collaborative art forms. The writer is responsible for two things only: structure, and to some lesser extent, dialogue. But even that is a collaborative process with the actors. If you don’t understand and embrace your limitation as an artist you will write badly. I think artists write because they encounter the chaos of life on the planet Earth and yet have some deep instinct of order behind that chaos. If what you see about the world is deeply embedded in the moment-to-moment sensual flow of experience, then you’re not going to be satisfied as an artist whose sensual access to that material resides in a different artist.

John Gardner referred to fiction as the “whole hog”: politics, history, anthropology, sociology, poetry; you get everything in fiction. Do you relate to that notion of the novel?

I was ready to embrace that idea, but when you started naming off those rational, abstracting sciences, I recoiled. I think fiction exists as a mode of discourse separate from any other because it resists and excludes the abstract and the rational and the ideational and the philosophical and the anthropological and sociological. All those things are the province of other modes of discourse. I don’t think literature exists as a kind of elaborate word game where we sit around and talk rationally about what that work of art means. It's antithetical to the reason work is created and it's antithetical to the way the work should be encountered by a reader. There are 138,000 words in They Whisper. The only true answer to what that book means is to open the book up and read those 138,000 words again. The abstracting of our feelings, the interpreting, the analyzing, all those rational processes that we apply to our feelings are there in order to distance ourselves, to manage, to control, to shape, to vent off the direct, powerful hold these things have on us.

How does the writer shape then? The artistic unconscious delivers, but the writer has to shape.

It's the interlocking, the weaving together of the deeply patterned motifs of the sensual world, that conveys a sense of order. That's why art is organic. Every sensual object, every moment, every word, every action, every metaphor in a true work of art resonates into everything else, links everything else. The tiniest example for you: in Countrymen of Bones, on page 2, Darell Reeves is out in the excavation site. He holds up his trowel, his basic tool. It's the thing that uncovers the past, and, in a way, uncovers himself to him. Now there are many different physical attributes he could consider at that moment, the heft of his trowel, the color of the blade, the texture of the handle, the pattern of earth clinging to the blade, but in fact he looks at it and notices that its blade is as strong and flexible as a Toledo sword. That's a very vivid sensual image. We see the thing clearly, and that's one of the levels at which art works. A hundred and fifty pages later, one of the ranchers gallops into the excavation site and takes Darell and the two young graduate-assistant workers hostage. That incident ends with Darell finally acting. And he does what?

He stabs him with his trowel.

Exactly. He picks up the trowel and kills the man with it. Now, I wouldn’t expect any reader to hold that initial image consciously in her head until that moment, but the vision of the book is manifest in the sensual impact of that trowel as he holds it, as he contemplates its blade, as the blade enters the flesh of a man.

About eleven years ago you said, “I write novels to explore for myself and to reveal to others my vision of the fundamental patterns inherent in the flux of experience.” Is that still your conviction?

Explore is the crucial word. I distinguish between literature and nonliterature in this way. Stephen King, Danielle Steel, even people like Jean-Paul Sartre understand ahead of time what effect they wish to convey, what ideas they wish to get across. Then they construct an object to do that. The artist responds to the world directly. He has some deep vision of order, but has no idea what that vision is until the object is created. The artist creates the object as much to explore as to express his vision. That's the fundamental distinction between what artists do and what entertainers or ideologues do.

Anatole Broyard, the New York Times reviewer, spoke of you as a novelist of ideas, and Philip Biedler's study of the so-called Vietnam writers, Rewriting America, calls you the most political writer of your generation of Vietnam-era writers.

Everything I’ve been saying so far would seem to militate against both of those observations about me. But both men, I think, were on to something very important about the philosophical and political implications of art. The reason I can be so effective in the realm of ideas and the reason I can be so effective in the realm of politics is that I ignore both of those things when I write. I think it was Swift who said that you can’t reason a person out of a position that he didn’t reason himself into in the first place. The vast majority of the political beliefs that most people have are deeply irrational. We watch McNeill/Lehrer and read the New York Times in order to find some intellectual rationale for feeling the way we do. The work of art, because it ignores abstract ideas and touches the deepest irrational, sensual self, is better able to shape political ideas where they are truly formed.

Three characters from The Alleys of Eden each went on to become central to a subsequent novel. Was that by design?

No. When I was writing bad plays, one of the ways I knew I wanted to be a novelist, at least in retrospect, is that I kept writing cycles of plays, with the same characters continuing on. Ironically enough, I got intrigued with a couple of secondary characters from the first novel I wrote when I got back from Vietnam in the fall of’72. I called it What Lies Near. David Fleming was the central character and Clifford Wilkes was a minor character. By the time The Alleys of Eden finally got published I had written six novels, including What Lies Near. On the fourth published novel, I went back to David Fleming and did him right. So the sense of characters going on was created backwards. Every character I create, no matter how small, becomes enormously interesting to me. They branch out into some other corner or pocket or vein in my artistic unconscious and begin to work there.

Why did you move back to the past with Countrymen of Bones and Wabash?

I don’t know. In a way going back to the fall of Vietnam was a kind of historical move, too. Going back to the energy crisis was a historical move as well, in a sense, because when I wrote those books we had gone past those events in some conclusive way. I’ve always been drawn to the large, external historical, cultural event that itself echoes the inner-personal pattern of the characters.

Was a family story behind Wabash?

Oh, sure. My mother and my mother's mother and my mother's sisters were wonderful storytellers but there are no real-life counterparts to any of my characters. Graham Greene said that all good novelists have bad memories. What you remember comes out as journalism; what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. All the characters in my work are creatures of the compost. Carlos Fuentes, I think, called the novel a pack of lies hounding the truth, and my books are the truest lies that I can tell. If anybody reads They Whisper looking for biographical details of me or my three wives or any other women I’ve loved or my son or my parents, they will be drastically misled. None of us exist in that book. On a deeper level, I am nakedly present in They Whisper and Ira Holloway. I would hasten to add, however, that They Whisper is not an attempt to find the unified field theory of human sexuality. It is a partial vision of myself and of what I see. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is deeply and nakedly me, as well, in every aspect of every character in the sense that I am pouring my most impassioned encounter with the world and my most ardent search for its meaning into every word, every image of that and every book.

I read your novels in sequence and it seems to me that if there's a breakthrough book, a book where you found your voice, it was The Deuce.

I think you are absolutely right. It was the first book I wrote in the first person. The first five novels were my playwright self, from The Deuce on I’ve gone back to being an actor. I become the role, I become the character. In A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain it felt like I was speaking in tongues at times. I can’t even imagine going back to the third person now. There's a great deal to explore with the first person. Look at They Whisper—the first-person voice of a man who lapses into the first-person voices of women, not as a kind of transsexual experience, but as the ultimate expression of heterosexual love.

I’d like to talk about They Whisper. Why did you choose to center the book around a character as dysfunctional as Fiona in taking on the task of exploring heterosexual love and relationships?

Fiona is not the center of the book, as Ira keeps pointing out. Fiona is one very important, but only one, sexual and sensual and female influence in the book. All the women are equally important in certain ways. Fiona's presence in the book, however, is as strong and dysfunctional as it is because she is the dark counterimage to Ira. He sees sex as a kind of secular sacrament. Churches understand sacraments as a physical something that resonates into the cosmic sphere. For Ira, women's bodies are that. Though Ira loves many women, he loves them absolutely and individually. For him a woman's body is a sacramentally charged metaphor for the inner secrets of her unique personality, which he seeks even through hearing and taking on her woman's voice. For him there is a kind of holy grail that is unattainable: Karen Granger, the little girl that he loved one summer. For him, sexuality is a powerful life force. Fiona is the dark counterimage to that. She has had sexual encounters with many men. But they were part of a constant search for reassurance that she is not loathsome. In place of Ira's holy grail, she has from her childhood the dark malignant influence of her sexually abusive father. Instead of being connected to the life force, sexuality for her is connected to death. Fiona and Ira are the yin and the yang; it's the life and death, wellness and sickness, connection and disconnection, that come together in that union.

A critical aspect of this book is the women's voices. I hadn’t even conceived They Whisper until I wrote A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Notably enough, Ira Holloway and I are strictly heterosexual, exclusively so, and yet I could not conceive a book, I could not write a book about the essence of male heterosexuality—what it is, how it drives a man, what the dark sides are—with the complexity it required until I found the woman's voice in me. Ira carries an inner landscape around with him in which dwell all the women he has ever loved, and as he meditates on them he lapses into their first-person voices. It is the ultimate act of intimacy, to leave the self and to join the other in the inner self.

But at the end of the book, he still feels incomplete.

They Whisper does not intend to discover a unified field theory of human sexuality. But it says things that I think are deeply true about our yearnings. And it is not just the man who continues to yearn for that deep connection where bodies are the way in. Women do too. Society has been much more efficient in suppressing that urge in women, but it is there. The question is, if sexuality is a kind of search for glimpses into the infinite, is it possible for any one relationship ever to be so complete as to exclude any other yearning or any other need for connection?

Do you think that in any good story there is any such thing as a reliable narrator?

The work itself will encourage or discourage that half or full step back from the narrator. In They Whisper there is the tiniest little bit of distancing. We probably have our own independent sense—inevitably given the subject matter—of Ira's choices and decisions and priorities and so forth. But I think we trust him to be pretty thoroughly self-aware. He is prepared to feel guilty. He deeply regrets deception and pain and he tries rigorously to avoid deceiving anyone and to avoid inflicting pain in relationships and he is very conscious in trying to examine a profoundly mysterious impulse. Reviewers speak of Ira as if he were an acquaintance, a real person, and that's fine, that's good. To some extent to write about this subject matter you’ve got to build that into the process. If you get a half a dozen of your literary friends around a dinner table and say, “Let's name all the serious literary novels that we can about war,” twenty minutes later you’ve got two hundred titles on the table. You say, “Okay, let's name all the serious literary novels we can about family relationships.” It's going to take an hour and you’ll have five hundred titles on the table. Then you say, “Let's name all the serious literary works of fiction that we can about the essence of human sexuality. Not just books with sex in them, but that really go at that subject head-on.” There's going to be a lot of silence and you’re going to stir your coffee and think and look out the window, and you probably won’t get off the fingers of that one proverbial hand. There are reasons for that. This deeply personal reaction is one. Another is the limits of the language. Though the English language has more words than any other, the words for those most intimate of body parts involved in this most intimate of human activities don’t carry with them the connotations of vulnerability and tenderness and cosmic resonance that many of us feel about those parts. They are either too clinical and scientific and bloodless or gross and trivializing and dismissive and pornographic. When I wrote They Whisper, with every word I felt as if I was reinventing the form of the novel and reinventing the language in certain ways.

You’ve made it clear that you think we should trust Ira. But the big problem with first-person narrative is that by definition every human being is limited; therefore the reader is going to recognize things that the narrator cannot. What are some of the main things that you would hope the reader sees in They Whisper that Ira can’t see for himself?

That's a difficult question because you are asking me to reconsider the whole book in exactly the kind of psychoanalytical abstracting terms that I have resisted in writing it. You trust him as much as any single human consciousness can be trusted. By and large we are led to distrust Ira in the same ways he distrusts himself. At any given moment, a reader might well be able to anticipate Ira's conclusions about certain things. For instance, we might well sense that Ira is not whole before he is able to declare it. He is so close to the women he loves that it is impossible for him to get a perspective on the dark side or incompleteness as soon as we would. He is deeply in love with and caught up in that glimpse into the infinite present even in the fading fingertips of a waitress on a cold wineglass. As much as he is able to evoke that for us, we are still a little bit separate. There can well be a range of personal reactions to him as a human being which I think still fit within the frame of a book about human intimacy and sexuality. To keep that range of human personal reaction within an artistic frame is the best that one can hope for and may be something quite special on its own.

In her review of They Whisper, Jane Smiley wrote that men of the Vietnam generation live “the realities of imperialism, both abroad and in the home, without conviction.” How would you respond?

On one level there is some validity to that but I think to limit it to men of the Vietnam era would be a big mistake. This is a universal and ages-old impulse of men that has existed since Solomon had two thousand wives and David lusted after somebody else's wife.

But Bathsheba was not allowed to lust after a lot of men and that's the difference I am getting at. We have a whole generation of men who accept that women have sex lives just like them, but it's a reality that you don’t often find reflected in contemporary fiction.

That impulse needs to be understood and accepted and embraced by and for women, and we have to take out society's reflex aversion to that impulse in men. Men who continue to love women throughout their life and feel that they might well be in love with more than one woman at once are treated as absolutely reprehensible. But there are many men for whom that impulse to continue to love women is deeply serious. They revere the individuality and the uniqueness of each woman and are seeking that connection to the cosmos. But Ira and men like him are terribly vulnerable. And for the men who feel that vulnerability and can’t live with it, one defense mechanism is to coarsen and diminish the impulse. They turn it into the reprehensible thing which is the objectifying of women and womanizing for the sake of power and possession, and these men ultimately kill that deeper self. It is terribly important to realize that the impulse exists in both men and women and that it exists in a serious and beautiful way.

It strikes a lot of your readers that you did a very, very nervy thing in writing not only They Whisper but A Good Scent [A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain] as well. You took a lot of risks.

That's true. The books are full of risks, and that's the only way I can continue to write. I just have to think about going deeper and deeper and deeper in. I only write from the place that my inspiration and my deepest concerns lead me. In this case it's led me not only into other cultures, but into the other gender as well. My conviction is that artists are in the business of breaking down those barriers between us. Every human being on the planet, I think, carries around the fear that, in spite of appearances, each of us is utterly alone. And it's the artist's job to take us out of ourselves and into the other. One should come to a work of art nakedly, as you would to a new lover, and say, “Take me. Make me part of you.”

Was this your approach in writing A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain as well as They Whisper?

A Good Scent was really the book where I had to face down that inhibition that says, “I can’t go there.” I think that's best summed up in something that the great Japanese film director Akira Kurasawa said, that to be an artist means to never avert your eyes. And if anything has guided me, that's it. With A Good Scent I found myself in that place artists must go in their unconscious where, lo and behold, we are neither Vietnamese nor American, neither Catholic nor Buddhist, neither Israeli nor Palestinian. We are all deeply, universally human. There is a place where all of us meet and share a self. And that's the place I think that all artists strive to get to. When you get there, you find that then you can project that common pool of experience from yourself, through yourself, but also from everyone else and through them. You can project back into characters and situations that on the surface seem far from you in those limiting ways of gender and race and culture.

How essential is learning the language of another culture to this process of reaching that common pool of experience?

I did need, in terms of my Vietnamese, to spend a year knowing the language fluently and deeply submerged in the culture. I took every opportunity I could. For the seven months that I was in Saigon, for instance, I would go out virtually every night well past midnight and just wander the steamy back alleys, where nobody ever seemed to sleep, and I would crouch in the doorways with the Vietnamese people, who were as a group the warmest, most open and generous-spirited people in the world. And they would invariably invite me into their homes and into their culture and lives. And I fell in love more than several times in Vietnam. And I had a wide range of friendships, from my favorite leper beggar on the streets, who was by the way the most cheerful man I have ever met in my life, to the highest government officials.

And you fell in love with the entire fabric of their culture and lives and language?

I was ravished by the sensuality of Vietnam. Fluency in another language, to really know another language is not just to develop equivalencies for words. You rename the world. And the sensual properties of that name echo into the object and the object echoes into the words and so with that other language, I was seeing the world afresh. I needed that.

What has the response in the Vietnamese community been to A Good Scent?

The most common comment is that my understanding of the Vietnamese and their culture is so intimate they could have sworn that I was Vietnamese. In Orange County, California, home to eighty thousand Vietnamese—it's called “Little Saigon,” and is the de facto capital of the Vietnamese in America—a wonderful man who's translating my work into Vietnamese arranged a luncheon with a dozen of the most prominent literary figures in the Vietnamese community in America. The thing they were so deeply grateful to me for was not the cultural accuracy of the book but the fact that I had portrayed the Vietnamese people as universally human. In Vietnam itself, an official in the foreign ministry, a fast-track young Communist, discovered my book and has translated some of the stories into Vietnamese. He wanted to do “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” as the title story, but his superiors did not find that story politically acceptable. He went on to translate “Crickets,” and his translation appeared in a weekly magazine in Saigon while I was there in’93 and caused quite a wonderful stir. Shopkeepers and cyclo drivers and so forth were stopping me on the street. “Crickets” has within it some pretty clear imagery. There are two types of crickets: the large charcoal crickets, which are big and strong but slow; and the smaller fire crickets that are quick and wily. Even when a child had his own charcoal cricket in a fight, everyone, even that child, would root for the little fire cricket. Who was who was pretty clear in the story. Every morning I passed a man who sold lapel pins within a block of my hotel. I spoke a greeting to him in Vietnamese; and he spoke back. We had a lovely sort of very warm, passing-hello relationship. This man was in his mid- to late forties. He had a horrible mangled stump where his left arm had been. On the day after “Crickets” appeared, he waved the magazine at me and called me over. It turns out that he is a former Vietcong soldier. We had a lovely chat and he went on about how much he loved all parts of the story. He says, “But you know what the best part was,” and he gave this great rich, deep laugh, “I used to fight crickets and what you say is true. When the fire cricket fought the charcoal crickets, we all rooted for the fire cricket.” Kind of an eerie moment. Here literary symbol meets object of the symbolism, and he was responding, not in any intellectual abstract way but directly and emotionally to this imagery.

Your stories seem to strike an accommodation between Buddhists and Catholics in Vietnam that I assume is reflected in Vietnamese life.

The Vietnamese are extraordinarily pragmatic and eclectic people. Everything you need to know about the Vietnamese people—their beliefs, their attitudes, their politics, their religion, their character—you can understand by learning how to cross the streets of Saigon. Those wonderful old wide French boulevards are filled at almost any hour of the day or night with ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five lanes of traffic in each direction. I say lanes but it's very amorphous. Virtually all of that traffic is motorcycles, motorbikes, bicycles, some cyclos—pedicabs, that is—a few taxicabs. To cross the streets in Saigon you stand on the corner and look across to the far side where you want to go. If you wait for an opening to get all the way across, you will die of old age on the curb. If you dash to an opening and wait and then dash to the next opening and so forth—you will die in the center of the street within seconds. In Saigon, what you do is this. You look to the left—the first small opening, you step into. And then you do not stop. You do not slow down. You continue to walk at a very moderate pace across the street toward the place you want to be. All those lanes of traffic bearing down on you will not stop, they will not slow down. But the vehicle that's about to strike you at any given second will at the last moment veer into the next lane. Without looking. Whoever is in that lane, understanding this process instinctively, moves into the next lane and so forth. You will continue to move through that traffic and it will ripple and flow around you until you are at the other side. If JFK had sent his chief of staff to Saigon in 1962 and said, “Learn how to cross the streets and tell me what you think,” that general would have learned two important things. First of all, we could never win the war. Second of all, we didn’t need to win the war, because as soon as the failures of the Communist system were clear to the Vietnamese, they would go around it—which is exactly what happened.

In many ways the title story of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain serves as a touchstone for the whole collection. Its function in the book echoes the structure of many of the individual stories: it makes you go back and think about the collection as a whole.

Yes, that story was written last, and it does indeed have a kind of overarching vision of life and the world and human aspiration and exile and choice of self that echoes through the whole collection. There's no question about that. John Clark Pratt did a very careful analysis of Good Scent in the Colorado Review last year. He sees it as a kind of quintessential postmodernist novel, working in montage. And I think he has got a point. Every story in the collection is carefully placed. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain was consciously written at the end from a specific sensual inspiration, but it stands in the book as an overarching vision of the whole.

How did you decide to order the rest of the stories?

It was a deeply subjective thing. I was looking for a rhythm of tone, of emotion, of gender. I positioned the stories so that there would be a kind of waveform, of hope and despair and cynicism and aspiration and so forth. It was a way of modulating the rhythm of emotion through the whole mosaic of voices.

Certainly a story like “The Trip Back” is about the ways of memory. One of the first things the narrator says is, “I’m not a poet. I’m a businessman.” Yet it takes a poet to tell this story, and the coming to be a poet is tied in with memory and action.

There's a certain paradox, yes. The narrator definitely feels that failure in himself; his potential to be a poet is latent, and the action he takes at the end of the story is the consummate artistic gesture.

It says to his wife, “I’ll be your grandfather. I’ll be your brother, I’ll be your friend, your father, everything to you.” It's a great act of the imagination and it's also an embodiment of sensory memory.

Thanks. But part of me inevitably balks at analysis and generalization of that kind. We sit here to talk about the work like this, but ultimately the work is only itself. It is only the act. He puts his wife on his back and runs with her. The impulse to step back from it and say, “Ah, now he's telling her that he's everything to her” is a reductive act. When I teach literature we look at the subtext and articulate it in terms different from the terms in which they sit there on the page. But I always tell my students, “The only reason we are doing this terribly artificial thing is that the process may help you to thrum more completely or harmoniously with the next work of art that you read. In order to do that, when you leave here your last assignment is to forget everything we’ve said here.” To be a real reader means to close the book and sensually resonate to the vision of order there and be at peace with that. That's enough. That's everything.

Like many of the stories in the book, every detail in “Mr. Green” comes together and works perfectly with the ending. It answers the question “What then?” and also is a response to her grandfather's “Not possible” on so many levels. Every detail. What role does revision play in bringing everything to such a fine pitch?

There was very, very little revision in any of the stories. My editor did not change a comma in that book. I do not leave a sentence until it is as close to being finished as it can possibly be. I revise as I go, so there was, of course, revision from sentence to sentence, but there were no drafts of any story, nothing had to be pulled through the whole process again and again.

Do you ever have fun writing? Was “Love” in A Good Scent a fun story to write?

Of course it was fun, and parts of They Whisper were great fun. The Karen Granger stuff, the synthesized voice at the grocery store checkout counter, the handwriting on the girls’ rest room walls. There is actually quite a lot of humor in They Whisper and those things are fun to write. But there's a deeper fun, bound up with fear and trembling and pain. It's the deep satisfaction of going as far as you can into that utterly sensual unconscious and shaping it into a vivid and clear vision of the world. I walk away from my computer every day with an exhilaration. No matter how difficult, how troubling the vision is, the articulation of it is joyful.

I know that you have in your head right now several more books. Can you please tell us what that means?

My unconscious is telling me that if I sat down tomorrow and began to focus entirely on one of the four novels and two books of stories I have in mind, eighteen months from now it would have an existence. It's an accretion of sensual details and relationships and localities and characters who yearn. You drive down a street at night and you know everybody on the block in some way. All the picture windows are open and you look to the left and somebody's sitting at a table and somebody is just moving into the room with her hair up in a towel and her bathrobe on and he turns and looks over his shoulder. Over in this house there's a child climbing onto the back of a father and down at the next house something else. You know that all you need to do is stop your car and go knock on the door and they would let you in and you’d sit in there for a year and a half and walk out with everything. It's images. It's that sense of lives together in a place that you can access.

Now that a whole body of Vietnam War literature exists, is there anything productive to say about that literature and your place in it?

If one writes from the artistic impulse I’ve been describing, then to call me a Vietnam novelist is like calling Monet a lily-pad painter. Vietnam for me has always been simply a metaphor, a location, an instigator of action, a source of characters, a matrix of concrete sensual experience that holds the deep universal human issues I’m concerned with.

You’ve been quoted as saying that to avoid madness, you had to turn yourself into your writing pad or computer and write, not think about prizes and fame and glory. Now you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize and you’re one of the best-known writers in the country. I guess I would like to ask Mr. Green's question: “What then?”

The nice thing about the Pulitzer is that it will be there forever. I think the monkey's off my back now. I’m always the Pulitzer Prize winner now and it just makes it easier to write the books that I’m given to write. I was going to do that anyway, but the great and blessed difference is that people will actually buy the books and read them. I’ve always known that I would find a much wider audience someday. My books are devoted to the proposition that literary fiction does not need to disenfranchise itself from strong storytelling. Though the artist must focus ultimately on exploring and expressing his or her own deep vision of the world, the very act of expressing reveals a deep yearning to touch and to connect to others. It's also an act of lovemaking. When I write a book I am making myself naked to the world and saying I wish to touch you. I wish to connect deeply with you. The wonderful thing about the prize is that now others will respond.

Earlier we touched on the question of wanting to make the reader see your vision of the world. If you were backed to the wall and had to say, “This is my vision of the world,” what would you say?

The only true answer to that is to take my eight books and read them to you again. And then to read you every book I write from this point on. Ultimately, after all this talk, that is my vision of the world. It is irreducible.

Julia Glass (review date 6 February 1994)

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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 senses,” he sets out to confront just about every symbolic nuance of sexual intimacy between men and women: sex as the most authentic knowledge of the hidden self; sex as a foretaste of death, as rebirth, as transubstantiation; sex as a struggle between joy and sin; sex as a realm of communion in which language fails us.

Incest, war, adultery, martyrdom, paternal love, divine desire and Catholicism all play roles in Ira's story, as do ostensibly, the voices of the women he has loved. Anyone who read A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the collection of stories that won last year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction, knows Butler to be a masterly ventriloquist and a spinner of tales at once lyrical, humorous and acutely moving. Readers of his previous six books also know his skill at constructing suspenseful, psychologically absorbing novels—serious, satisfying books one simply can’t put down.

Though Butler speaks in a new, more expansive voice in the opening pages of They Whisper, one recognizes with pleasure familiar landmarks from earlier books. With his usual knack for sensuous detail, Butler catapults the reader from a 1950s Wabash, Illinois, shoestore (where Ira experiences his earliest sexual yearnings as he X-rays a girl's foot) to a Saigon massage parlor (where, as an intelligence officer fluent in Vietnamese, he is a darling among the girls, who greet him with quips such as “How you’ve grown, Mr. I!”), then back to Wabash (where the bookish adolescent Ira, overlooked by the opposite sex, decides to investigate the female mystery by sneaking into the girls’ restroom at the high school after hours and reading the graffiti). With equal pleasure, we see that Butler will again tackle the vagaries of language itself, as he did with such insight in A Good Scent [A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,].

Unfortunately, They Whisper falls short of its promise, in part because its early sense of humor evaporates along the way, but more significantly because its narrative and narrator seem ultimately adrift. Because a stated theme here is the intimate knowledge of other people—that grasping of the Other, be it another culture or another gender, that haunts all of Butler's writing—we look forward to understanding Ira Holloway, the man as a whole, through his erotic psyche. But for all his emotional confessions, Ira remains a cipher.

At first he appears to be an empathic connoisseur of femininity, marveling at the “great metropolis of women” inhabiting his soul. He professes a sexual clairvoyance, an ability to hear these women's “ontological whisperings” while making love to them. As he catalogs his memories, however, Ira begins to seem more like a consumer than a connoisseur, a man who needs to bed nearly every woman he meets, who is deaf to the expressions of anything but her vagina.

“Touching and kissing and entering that part of a woman,” he claims, “is so I can find my way to her voice, her secret voice, so I can hear it in my head.” Belying that assertion, few of the women we meet seem psychologically distinct, and their soliloquies are mostly indistinguishable in tone from Ira's own voice.

The glimpses we have of Ira clothed—as a public relations man, as the only child of estranged parents, as an unhappily married father—do not fully clarify how he became so “ravished with love for this center of a woman's body,” how a woman's orgasm becomes “the cry that said there was a future before me, there was a future full of women I would love, women I would yearn for and leap with and rise to and give and give and dream with and that was what had always quickened me, what had given me this keen presence in the world.”

His desire, so earnestly rendered, feels flat; he lacks, for instance, the self-deprecating macho of Jim Harrison's heroes or the reflective angst that shadows Andre Dubus’ stories of love and lust—in short, any counterweight to his compulsions. Ira is no Don Juan—his women are not conquests—but his reverence begins to seem suspiciously like camouflage as we read page after page of this generic woman-worship, and the expressively documented sex grows monotonous.

Outside this roiling sea of sex, Ira seems to have no idea who he is. Repeatedly, he attempts to justify his sentimentality by reiterating his mission “to understand why my life is so powerfully compelled by soft touching, joined flesh, complex parts of a self unseen,” but the mission is never fulfilled. “Mr. I” cannot outrun his ego.

Central among Ira's women is his wife, Fiona, a fragile creature whose purported intelligence and charm are fleeting at best. Cued by various portents, such as pointed references to Van Gogh, we sense early on that her dark wound—sexual violation by her father—will blossom into something more than garden-variety neurosis.

Ira, curiously benumbed for a man who claims such compassion, watches almost passively as her eccentricities escalate. Even when Ira remains with Fiona only to protect their young son, one finds it doubtful that he could tolerate repeated frenzies involving “three hours of struggle … Fiona raging and frothing at the mouth”—or one wishes that he would at least look deeper within to comprehend his inaction.

Is They Whisper the erotic memoir we expected or the dissection of a dysfunctional, abusive relationship? About halfway through the book, I began to anticipate that Ira, like the narrator of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, might turn out to be a master of protective self-deception. Perhaps Ira's grandiose litany would disintegrate and reveal the link between his celebratory sexual obsessions and his torturous marriage. This does not occur, however; and while the heavily foreshadowed climax is not implausible, it exempts Ira from confronting the moral dilemmas in his life as a husband and father.

For Butler, the language of sex becomes another obsession, and some of his attempts to transcend its limitations—its vacillation between the clinical and the vulgar—are astute and amusing (a reverie, for instance, on the anatomy of Fiona's navel). But once the story grows deadly serious, all playfulness goes out the window, and with it any chance of breaking the linguistic barriers that Ira so rightly ridicules.

They Whisper does contain some affecting vignettes, evoking with pungent immediacy the smells and sounds of places as diverse as a Wabash trailer park and a Thai whorehouse. At all times, we know exactly where we are. We do not always, unfortunately, know why we are there.

Let it not be overlooked that Butler has been daring, first perhaps for entering the hallowed terrain of D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. Male lust, in fact, is no benign topic at a moment when neo-Puritan schoolmarms police our culture from both left and right. But Butler's courage does not redeem the frustrations encountered in They Whisper, a book that might be seen as an aberration—even a necessary exorcism—in the ongoing career of a brilliant writer.

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

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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 translator. That service and his subsequent residency in Louisiana where he serves on the faculty of McNeese State University at Lake Charles were the basis of stories about Vietnamese living in America. Prior to A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Mr. Butler published six novels that, while well-reviewed, were never commercially successful, though they have since been reissued. These include The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Wabash, and The Deuce. His most recent novel is They Whisper. This interview was conducted in a single two-hour session in New Orleans in the spring of 1994.

[Sartisky]: Robert, I gather that winning the Pulitzer Prize has changed your life. Can you talk a little bit about how?

[Butler]: Yes, it has changed it in some obvious sort of surface ways and some rather deep and profound ways as well. On the surface, certainly my life has gotten extraordinarily busy. At first, after the prize was announced—I’m cursed with call waiting—about two hundred phone calls daisy-chained their way through my life in that first eight or ten days. The accumulation of phone messages and mail has been oppressive since the middle of April.

The deeper change, of course, is that for over a decade, I wrote six very good books in considerable obscurity. My last novel, The Deuce, published by Simon and Schuster, got a better-than-half-page rave review from Scott Spencer in the Sunday New York Times Book Review and then went on to get about eight more reviews: which is almost like not getting reviewed at all. I sold a little over a thousand copies.

This was my sixth novel. I always had an ardent hard-core following in important critical centers and also amongst readers, but it has been a small hard core. I’ve not been very widely reviewed, but I’ve been reviewed very well in certain places, the New York Times for instance. I have not sold very many books, and so as a result I learned long ago that to avoid madness all I could do was to go to my computer every day and do my work and not think about the prizes and not think about the reviewers and not think about how many readers there were.

So the change in my life now has been quite a shocking sort of thing to me. On the one hand, I have learned just not to think about it or expect it. On the other hand, it seems like the most natural thing in the world on some deeper level, but there is a strange dichotomy in that reaction. The important change is that people are now listening; that's very clear. I had a long-standing commitment to give a reading at Baylor University which was set for about ten days after I won the Pulitzer. They had scheduled me with elaborate explanations about what they always do with visiting writers. They had scheduled me for an afternoon reading as opposed to an evening reading, because, they explained, it was very difficult to get people in Waco to come out at night. They put me in a modest English department seminar room expecting forty people maybe, which would be a pretty good turnout for a literary writer for that kind of event. Well, as soon as I won the Pulitzer, they called me up and said, “We’re changing to this big auditorium and we’re going to have the reading at 7 P.M.” I thought, “Oh no!” I had visions of forty people or less scattered out through the auditorium, because it would be nighttime in Waco. But the auditorium that evening was packed with 350 people who hung on every word. The campus bookstore sold a hundred copies of the book in ten minutes, and that is the difference in microcosm: people listening.

Let me ask you this, then: What is the nature of the inquiries you are receiving at this time? Do they really want to know about Robert Olen Butler, or are we in Andy Warhol-land? Is it the sheer notoriety that is attracting the inquiries?

The inquiries are an extraordinarily mixed variety. Everything from an offer of a speaking engagement at Harvard University this fall to a letter I just received from a twenty-year-old woman who is half Vietnamese, a sophomore at an Ivy League school, thanking me for writing this book, which she says is the book she has waited for all her life, to my best friend in high school, who I had not seen or heard from in thirty years, to somebody who is striving in great confusion and hopelessness to be a writer who sends me a manuscript and asks me to tell him what is wrong with it, to a guy who runs a laminating business and wants to know if I would like to buy a laminated copy of the Associated Press article on my winning the Pulitzer.

That is just a little sense of the variety. All of a sudden, the world that I have been observing has suddenly turned its head and is looking back at me. The writer is always fascinated with the variety of human experiences; just walk the streets of the town, walk through the French Quarter—that is what I love about New Orleans so much—the extraordinary cultural and personal variety of the people that you pass. They are all looking at me now.

After all these years of looking at the world, the world is looking back now.

That's right. That's right.

Of course, you can take some comfort in the fact that Herman Melville sold less than five hundred copies of Moby Dick in his lifetime.

And got terrible reviews too, that book.

In this country. Actually, the English were aware of him, and English visitors came over looking for the great American writer that no Americans had ever heard of for many years. Another example was Jack London. In his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden agonizes over the irony of a writer who has been working for years and years sending stories out and even getting stories published to an absolute overwhelming silence of response who upon suddenly being discovered finds himself in the limelight. He agonizes over what has wrinkled in the universe that would suddenly change, and the question “Why am I at this moment a better writer than I was the day before when no one knew my name?” I am interested in the question of being a writer in America or a writer in Louisiana. At this very extraordinary moment, as you say, you’ve written six books that you obviously feel have merit, that always did have merit.

Yes, always did.

Yet at this moment they remain unavailable, though your publisher is about to rerelease them.

Right.

Because naturally now people know who you are and you’ve received the imprimatur of quality. People are going to rush back and try to secure those as well. It must be difficult for what must have been a very private life up to now to retain a measure of balance and perspective, to maintain the quality of mind that has been the norm for you and has allowed you to produce your work.

Well, I think that having waited this long has pretty much prepared me for that. For many years I wrote under very difficult circumstances. I was in a very difficult marriage trying to keep a son whole within it, of whom eventually I got complete custody. At the same time I was working an eight- to ten-hour job as the editor in chief of a business newspaper in Manhattan, and so, as a result, every word of my first four published novels was written on legal pads by hand on a masonite lap board on the Long Island Railroad as I commuted from Sea Cliff, Long Island, to Manhattan and back again.

What were those books?

The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, and On Distant Ground. In fact, I wrote half of Wabash on my lap as well, but by then I had gotten my Ph.D. from the University of Knopf and so was able to get my tenure-track teaching job, which happened to be at McNeese State University. I couldn’t have been smarter than to come down here, but it was not my decision; ultimately it was the job that was available.

It was probably even literally providential, because the man I replaced left the position three weeks after I called McNeese pimping myself upon them as I did with some number of colleges. I talked to John Wood, my colleague and friend now at McNeese. We hit it off wonderfully on the phone, but he had nothing for me because they had one fiction writer spot and it was filled. Three weeks later that writer came in to him and said that he was quitting because he was going into the priesthood; he had received the call.

By the time I got here my own work habits were so deeply ingrained in me that I think I’ve been able to resist and will be able to resist those traditional temptations and distractions that the big prizes often carry with them. I lost that first ten days with those two hundred phone calls, but on the eleventh day I went back to work and finished up some important rewriting that I was doing on the final touch-ups of my new novel, which will be out in January. So I’m confident that I will be able to take this extraordinary enhancement of tension that has come my way in stride. I will always have that two hours somewhere in the day. I’ve got my laptop computer now and am fully capable of working anywhere.

Let's take a step back a little bit, if you don’t mind, and fill in some of the details about who Robert Olen Butler is, about where you were born, about where you grew up, how you came to be who you are today.

I was born in 1945 in Granite City, Illinois, which is a steel mill town of about 35,000 people on the Mississippi River bottoms, just across the river from St. Louis. St. Louis is a very interesting place because everybody north of St. Louis thinks it is a southern city and everybody south of St. Louis thinks it is a northern city. Granite City is particularly interesting because it is a place full of both northerners and southerners who are on the make financially but at the lower-class level. There are Kentuckians, Mississippians, Alabamans, and people from the upper Midwest who were drawn there for the steel mills. I worked in the summertime in the steel mills and drove a taxicab at times in that area, but I was the son of a university professor who was the chairman of the theater department at St. Louis University. So I have always been in a situation where the collision of cultures was an ever-present theme. I think that is one of the things that probably made me so receptive to Vietnam, but also particularly in this case to the Vietnamese in their plight here in America with the collision of those two cultures.

After I graduated from high school in Granite City, I went off to Northwestern University in Evanston and majored in theater, thought I would be an actor. I had some considerable success my first couple of years at Northwestern in acting, but then I decided that I would rather write than interpret and so I transferred into something called oral interpretation. Because I had been in a theatrical family and had been interested in the theater, I thought playwriting would be the thing I would do. I then went off to the University of Iowa afterward and got a master's degree in playwriting. But it really wasn’t my medium. I was trying to force the way I saw the world into that medium, and it was inappropriate for it. There is a fundamental difference between playwriting and fiction writing in that the playwright is a collaborative artist. He is responsible for a limited number of things, and they are not the things that really involve the moment-to-moment sensual flow of the art object. All art objects, whatever the medium, are fundamentally sensual. The sensual moment-to-moment flow of the art object that is a play exists not on the page of the playscript but on the stage in performance. The artists who are responsible for the moment-to-moment sensual reality of that art object are the actors, the director, the various production designers. The playwright is responsible for two things basically: structure—that is primarily what he is responsible for—and to some lesser extent, he is responsible for dialogue.

But since 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. That vision was pressing on me—and this is something I learned far more clearly in Vietnam—it was pressing on me in a directly sensual way. Vietnam was a ravishingly sensual place and thoroughly taught me where my own focus was. I then understood that playwriting was not my medium. I had to create stories in a medium where I was directly shaping the moment-to-moment sensual flow of the art object, and that is therefore fiction.

Talk to me a bit more about your formative experiences prior to being a literary creator. I would be interested to know because there are certain sensibilities and characters that appear. Richard Ford once wrote that being an author is putting into words other people's ideas, other characters’ ideas. They are not necessarily autobiographical, they are not necessarily your own, they are creations of your imagination. Yet I think many of us assume that there is in the writer's own formative past the origin of the ideas or the sensibility and ultimately at least the background necessary, the context necessary for that fiction to eventually find its way into words.

Well, I guess I would ask you to be somewhat more specific about what aspects of my writing you would like to trace, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I don’t think of my own work in the kind of analytical or ideational way that would require the books to trace back to something. Second—and I think this is part of being an artist—is that the artist gets very uncomfortable with the translation of his work into other terms, especially abstract terms or summarized terms. Particularly in terms of autobiography. I often paraphrase to my students a notion that Graham Greene voices in his autobiography, his memoir, A Sort of Life, and that is that all good novelists have bad memories. He says what you remember comes out as journalism, what you forget goes into the compost of the imagination. So the things that are really finding their way into my work that are most important and really ultimately are most deeply reflective of who I am and how I see the universe are the things that I have blessedly and necessarily forgotten.

Let's play it this way. Since the literature is the expression of what you’ve forgotten, let's talk about what you remember.

Okay, not much. What would you like?

Particulars.

It's funny. I just spent a weekend with my best friend I mentioned from high school thirty years ago. He told anecdote after anecdote after anecdote about me. I remembered nothing, not a word, even after he reminded me.

I’m just reacting to what you’re saying. I don’t mean to be imposing anything. Would you characterize yourself in that sense as being less introspective than observant of the world around you? Is that perhaps why?

No, I think the process is one of an intense fusion of both those things. Where my introspection disappears—it is incredibly intense and active—but it disappears into the kind of ravenous sensual observation of the world around me so that they become a single process.

In a sense, as Shakespeare says, you have to lose the self to gain the self?

Yes. Yes. And you have to lose the self—the self of the literal memory—to gain the art that comes from the deeper self. But if you want specific things, I would be happy to try to work with that.

Yes, I’m just trying to ask you about what I’m calling your preliterate period, before you try to give expression to those things you have forgotten, for example in your youth or your adolescence. When did you begin writing?

Well, I began writing seriously on my twenty-first birthday, at the point where I had changed from acting as an ambition to writing. I began writing plays, which were not really getting at things I wanted to say, but at least I was writing. Before that, my ambition had been in acting. I was certainly influenced by the theater; I did a lot of acting.

I was influenced by some of the things I mentioned already: Granite City, Illinois. I was influenced by the steel mills, I worked in them, found them to be a place of great beauty, great intensity. I grew up within a couple of miles of the largest earthen artifact of pre-Columbian America—a fourteen-acre, ten-story-high Indian mound called Monk's Mound, which was the centerpiece of an ancient Indian city which flourished around the thirteenth century. It was larger than its contemporary London. Those were certainly strong influences.

I was influenced by music; my son is incredibly musical. I played the piano for a time when I was young, apparently really well, but again it is something I let go of and forgot. But I’ve always loved music, classical music, and in fact to this day, I tend always to write to music. I find appropriate classical music as a kind of background hook for my writing. It depends on the book. In my youth my favorites were always Aaron Copland, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel.

I certainly spent a period of intense reading, the obvious people, Faulkner and Hemingway and so forth, early Joyce, Graham Greene. Winesburg, Ohio was a very influential book for me. The river, the Mississippi River, St. Louis. St. Louis is a remarkable city in that it stands at the fulcrum of two internal cultures, the North and the South. And that great river. These are all influences.

Vietnam, of course, was a terrific influence on me. It was a preliterate influence. Because the writing I had done before Vietnam was ghastly awful, utterly unattached to my inner self. And in the wrong medium altogether. So, I didn’t start writing in any full sense until I got back from Vietnam and began writing fiction.

What was your term in Vietnam?

One year. Essentially calendar year 1971. The year of 1970, I spent that entire year in a Vietnamese language school, seven hours a day, five days a week, with a Vietnamese native.

Where was that?

In Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia.

That one year was an immersion in the language?

Absolute immersion in the language and in the person of this young woman. An immersion, too, into the culture in certain ways, and into a glimpse of, even at that point, a glimpse at the struggle of an exile. She was here voluntarily, seeking whatever.

What was her name?

Nghi. Ms. Nghi spoke to me once about what happened to her each evening when the cannon went off. It is a ceremonial cannon that was fired at Fort Myer, Virginia, which was very nearby. At dusk, they fired the cannon. Ms. Nghi often would weep at the firing of that cannon, weep with a kind of yearning for her home. The cannon fire was a sound of nostalgia for her. Because she had grown up virtually all her life in the midst of war and the sounds of war. So, that was the beginning. I got to Vietnam and I spoke the language fluently from essentially my first day there. I then had an opportunity to have very close contact with a wide variety of Vietnamese people. I spent five months working with military intelligence, out in the countryside, mostly northeast of Saigon and a few weeks down near the South China Sea. Then I spent seven months working as a linguist at Saigon City Hall.

Before we go into that, if you don’t mind, I want to stay for just a moment with how you came to become a translator. How did you happen to have been handed that particular assignment in the service?

Well, my assignment in the service was really counter-intelligence special agent. When I was finishing up my master's degree at the University of Iowa, I was informed—this was just before the lottery draft—I was informed by my draft board that as soon as I got my degree in February, my student deferment would be null and void and they would draft me. So, I went to my local army recruiter to see what sort of choices I had, and I did have a choice. They would guarantee I would go into a certain military occupational specialty if I enlisted for a third year instead of allowing myself to be drafted. So I did that.

The specialty I chose was counter-intelligence special agent, which, as it was described to me, meant I would probably be in an American field office, doing background investigations on U.S. Army personnel who were seeking top-secret security clearances. It seemed a reasonable sort of thing to do. So I went off to Fort Holabird, Maryland, and when I arrived they put me in a holding company because recruiters all over the country had been feeding this line to potential army men and there were hundreds and hundreds of counter-intelligence, neo-counter-intelligence agents just waiting for classes to open up. So we sat in Baltimore for six months and painted rocks and then finally I got in my class and sure enough I became a counter-intelligence special agent.

However, there was another possibility for CI agents which wasn’t outlined, and I got orders to go to Washington to learn Vietnamese. Then I ended up in Vietnam and I did work for five months in Intelligence.

Okay, we’re picking up there …

Yes, then for seven months I worked in Saigon as a linguist. The influence there was the Vietnamese people. In the countryside I was in contact with Vietnamese informers, with the U.S. Army, village chiefs, and rice farmers, water buffalo jockeys, and whatever, an extraordinary variety of people there. Then in Saigon my favorite thing in the world was at two in the morning to wander out of my hotel and into the steamy back alleys where no one ever seemed to sleep. I would crouch in the doorways with the Vietnamese people there. The Vietnamese as a group are the warmest, most friendly, most generous-spirited people in the world, and they inevitably invited me into their homes and into their lives, and into their culture. I fell in love several times. I had wonderful friends that ranged from my favorite leper beggar on the streets of Saigon—who was also, by the way, the most cheerful man I ever met in my life—up to the highest Vietnamese government officials. It was my intimate intense encounter with those people and my ongoing intense encounter with the ravishing sensuality of Vietnam that turned me into a fiction writer.

Did you obtain this access by virtue of your command of the language?

Primarily. The jobs that I did gave me opportunities to have contact with a wider variety of people than probably most army men could have had contact with. Then once I had contact with them, obviously the quality and nature of my communication with them was greatly enhanced by my command of the language. So, certainly it is the thing that opened the whole experience up to me in terms of my understanding and becoming immersed in it.

Did you write about it while you were there or did it not start to form itself until after you left?

I wrote a lot of notes there. I kept notebooks and I wrote one of my worst plays there in Saigon. But it didn’t really begin to shape itself until later. I had not yet forgotten. In my creative writing courses, I always read “Open Arms,” which is one of the stories in Good Scent [A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.]. I read that story to them. It is a very fully realized story. Then I read to them the passage from my notebook which recounts a couple of incidents that were the initial inspiration for that story. But then I read them a story that I wrote in about February or March of 1972, which was just a couple of months after getting back from Vietnam and only six or eight months after the incident.

In fact it was the first short story, the first piece of serious fiction I ever wrote, and it is a dreadful little story. I show my students how it was a perfect example of all the things that they do wrong, that I once did wrong as well. It is interesting to see that one of the reasons it went wrong is that I had not yet forgotten. I was still bound to my literal memory. That is not the place to write from if you are going to write good fiction.

What was your first published work of fiction?

My first published work of fiction was a short story called “Moving Day” which was in Redbook magazine in 1974. I was really a terrible short story writer, too, but this was a good story. I wrote one good story, interestingly enough in the first person. It was about a couple of guys who are about to be shipped off to Vietnam, jogging in Central Park. There's a kind of little psychological game they’re playing with each other, each trying to convince the other that he's in trouble, the other guy's going to be in trouble but he's not, over in Vietnam in their anticipated assignments. It is a good story.

I sold another story which was just kind of typical women's magazine stuff and I sold a story to Cosmopolitan. I did those in the space of about a year and a half and then stopped publishing. I wrote a lot of bad stories after that and stopped writing short stories. Then I finally got my first novel, The Alleys of Eden, published in 1981.

Was this the first work in which Vietnam was central?

That's it. The first one I got published. Now, I wrote five other novels. I wrote six novels from 1972 to 1981. The Alleys of Eden was the fourth of those six novels. The other five have never been published. But I was trying to figure out how to do this thing.

Were they all Vietnam-centered novels?

No, no, they were not. Some of them were centered in Wabash, which is the fictional town that I created as the doppleganger to Granite City. The first novel I wrote, a thing I called What Lies Near, was really the first Vietnam novel I wrote. I finished that in 1973. An incident from there and even a chapter from there became critical parts in On Distant Ground, which was my fourth published novel, my first book at Knopf.

In your own assessment, what was the weakness or failure, or short-comings of the first novel?

What Lies Near was about half a novel; it was half the conception of a novel extended to novel length.

By which you mean what?

There wasn’t enough there to really explore a vision of the world through the novel form. There was an incident in the book of a military intelligence officer seeing a bit of graffiti in an interrogation cell. A remarkably ironic bit of graffiti which to David Fleming, the intelligence officer, suddenly summoned up the sense of the person, the real person. He then finds out who was in that cell and through the novel just misses him here and there. He continues almost against his will to seek this man out while doing what for him is basically an irrelevant other investigation. Ultimately he finds the man on Con Son Island, where Thieu had his tiger cages, and he goes there and kidnaps him and sets him free. That is the novel. There wasn’t enough there to explore, number one. Number two, I was still writing too much from my head, which is where you go when you write from literal memory. The place art is created from is much deeper than that. The compost heap that Graham Greene speaks about, the artistic unconscious which most people talk about, that deep amorphous well of your sensual memory, your sensual self. I wasn’t in that place; I was writing too much from my head. That is the other major thing wrong with that book. I didn’t know how to get in there, didn’t know even then that is the place I had to go. I was content to create from my head. Nobody had ever told me otherwise.

I would not have written that many bad novels, misbegotten novels, if I had had somebody to spend just six hours, eight hours with me and tell me the things that I tell my students in the first six or eight hours, but I had to learn all that for myself. That is why it went bad. I finally found my way with The Alleys of Eden into that place and I never wrote that other way again. Well I did. The fifth and sixth novels are not so good either, because then I was really getting desperate to get published and I started doing things willfully and from my head again. But finally my best novel got published after twenty-one rejections.

Which was?

The Alleys of Eden.

You consider that your best novel?

Of the first six. Of those six unpublished books, that was my best one. It was the only one I really wrote from the place where I should be writing, and forever thereafter, I knew I should stay in that place. I knew where to go. So, by the time I wrote my fourth published novel, On Distant Ground, I knew where to write from and I also knew how to go back to the partial conception of my first novel manuscript and give it a whole other element. That other element still exists, but that book picks up with the court martial of David Fleming after he had set free that prisoner. Fleming is married, and as the court martial begins, his first child is born during the trial. During the trial, memories are brought up, particularly of a Vietnamese woman he had a brief affair with in Vietnam. She had broken the affair off mysteriously after a couple of months, and through several factors, not the least of which is the birth of his son, Fleming becomes convinced that the woman broke it off because she was pregnant. With this newfound love for his son, based on the fact that the son looks like him, just as he finally learns that that fragment of graffiti reminded him of his own mind, he becomes obsessed with the notion that he has a son in Vietnam. Without getting into too much of the plot: he goes back to try to find him.

So it was that; it was the deeper and richer conception and the overlapping pattern of what was really behind this obsession about the writing on the interrogation cell wall and what is really behind his obsession with finding his child, this putative child. It is the dual conception and reinforcing conceptions of those two patterns that really made for a fully realized novel.

The protagonist Fleming in that novel …

Was a minor character in The Alleys of Eden.

And the novel was written from the point of view of Fleming, I presume.

Yes, not first-person, but a limited third-person omniscient narrator, which is strictly Henry James's central intelligence. Yes, it is limited to Fleming.

Which was the first published work, if you will, in which the point of view was that of the Vietnamese?

The Deuce, in 1989, my sixth published novel. Though The Alleys of Eden has a very fully developed, equally important Vietnamese character, Lanh, a former bar girl, lover of Cliff, who is a U.S. Army deserter who deserted in Saigon. It is a story of a U.S. Army deserter and the bar girl he has lived with for four and a half years in the back alleys of Saigon, and it picks up on the night that Saigon has fallen. Lanh is a very fully realized character and we see her entirely through Cliff's eyes, but he sees her as whole and complete, so we see her too. As far as writing within the point of view of the Vietnamese, The Deuce is the first book. There I actually write in the voice of a sixteen-year-old Vietnamese boy.

What made you decide—if in fact decision is quite the word—why was it that in this sixth novel you brought Vietnamese consciousness so much into the foreground?

Well, I think he brought himself there, in a sense. I was thinking about a new book to write. I had become intrigued with a notion of David Fleming's life after he brings home his son, the kid who might be his son, though not in any obvious way. So I thought I would write a sequel to On Distant Ground, but when I started thinking about it, the kid himself really took over and then became a kid of his own, really somebody new. Once I knew I was going to write a book about this boy, he just insisted on speaking for himself without the mediator of that third-person narrator.

You say he insisted on speaking for himself. In what sense of your own consciousness do you phrase it that way?

When you have a book to write, a story even, for me at least—I’m sure it is this way for many writers—what you have really inside you is a character, somebody who is there. He is somewhat like his real world counterpart but probably because he doesn’t really exist, he is even more real to you. He is a different, distinct, and very clear real person who is just there somewhere in the shadows whispering to you, and you have to listen to him, go to him, and pull him out of the shadows and into the light. That is the way it was with Tony in The Deuce. That is the way it was with all the others in Good Scent. That is the way it was with the other books, too.

The question is always whether the author is a voice and eminence apart from but close to that person or whether you in fact enter into that person's own consciousness and sensibilities and voice. But this kid would not let me mediate. I had also been reading at the time—my wife Maureen and I had been reading to each other each night—a book that I really like to think helped nudge me in the direction of the first-person voice as a narrative medium. Indeed, its influence carried forward just as strongly if not even more strongly into Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

What book was it?

A book about baseball called The Glory of Their Times, by Lawrence Ritter. But it is not by him. It is by his tape recorder. He went out in the early’60s and interviewed maybe sixteen, eighteen, twenty players from the very early days of baseball when they were all very old men. It is in the voices of Rube Marquard and Sam Crawford, for instance, and Fred Snodgrass. These guys were so wonderful and strong and personal and full of the sense of exile. In a way, they had lived in another country. They had lived in the country of youth and of baseball and now they passed out of that country in their thirties and had lived forty or fifty years in exile from that country of their youth. I think that book had a real influence on me.

You mentioned several times, voice and sensuality. Would you elaborate a bit more on both those dimensions in your writing? They seem to be very central.

Fiction exists as a mode of discourse separate from all others, because it is sensual. It is the one mode of prose discourse that is trying to articulate a vision of the world through the senses. Fiction is trying to communicate primarily by going back to that flux of sensual experience out there that is life on the planet Earth, pulling bits and pieces of it out and shaping them and reshaping them and giving them back to the reader as experience itself in its own form. I see this as the primary characteristic of literary fiction.

I think then the corollary is that those nascent artists who are destined to be literary fiction writers are probably uncommonly conscious of and open to their senses and are uncomfortable trying to communicate, just as I am now, important things about the world in any mode other than a sensual mode.

Define sensual.

Sensual? The direct rendering of the things that we touch, smell, taste, hear, and feel on our skin.

The direct experience, in a total physical and emotional engagement?

Right. Where a man is feeling fear of the jungle and someone nearby that would kill him, we don’t say he is full of fear, that is abstract. We don’t say he moved quietly out of the jungle because that is summary. We don’t say he leaned against the tree and because his father used to beat him and he’d hide in the barn from him this was a particularly difficult moment and he listened and he thought about his father; that is analysis. If the father is important, the man leans up against the tree and then we see his father bring his face into the candlelight and it is as if the man's nose flares with light and his mouth opens; his mouth opens but did not close again and the jaw hangs slack and now the man leans back against the tree and shakes his head and he's breathing only from the lip up. That is moment to moment, through the senses, as opposed to abstraction and generalization and summary and analysis. A literary fiction writer's impulse, primary impulse, is to write in that sensual way.

To convey the raw experience itself?

To draw the reader out of himself into the sensibilities of the character. If you don’t—because we’re writing about human emotions—and human emotions are felt only through the senses, all the other stuff, our labeling of those emotions, our understanding of them in some abstract way, the willful flow of rational discussion about our feelings in our heads, the analysis and interpretation we put on it, those are not the emotions themselves; those are ways of not having the emotions. That is its usefulness to us in daily life. But if you use those nonsensual devices as a fiction writer you end up throwing the reader back into himself to fill in the sensual blanks.

It is like the difference between masturbation and making love. Nonliterature relies on abstraction and analysis and summary and cliché, which is the same as abstraction. Look at all the Harlequin Romance readers who weep real tears or who actually get physically excited about this man taking this woman in his arms and “her heart beat wild with passion.” They read sentences like that and they get excited, physically excited. Why, though? Because they’re filling in those sensual blanks. The fundamental experience of nonliterature is you are thrown back into yourself. It is self-referential, masturbation. In literature you are drawn out of yourself, just as in making love. You become part of an other and the only way you can do that is by rendering the other's inner sensibilities, the way that unique person, and his or her unique body encounters those emotions directly through the senses. If we entered into that process, then we can feel those feelings too. Not as ourselves, but as part of this other person, which is what literature is all about.

Very nicely said. In the same respect, what about place or setting? What if we were to go through the novels? The Alleys of Eden is set primarily in Saigon?

Yes.

Sun Dogs?

Northern slope of Alaska.

Countrymen of Bones?

Alamagordo. Desert.

On Distant Ground?

Saigon, Baltimore, Maryland, and Saigon again.

Wabash?

Wabash, Illinois. Steel mill town in the St. Louis area.

The Deuce?

New York City.

Good Scent from a Strange Mountain?

The two Vietnamese communities, one in New Orleans and one in Lake Charles, mostly New Orleans. Places were very strong. The locations are a very strong element. I think it was Henry James who said, “Landscape is character,” and I’m very much influenced by places. I travel a lot, and it is absolutely critical to my creative process; places are inescapably and comprehensively sensual, and they are always shaping us. Since our emotions are sensual, and one of the sensual ways that we express our emotions and experience them is by the selectivity of the sensual cues around us. There are hundreds of sensual cues surrounding us, any of which we might respond to. But at any given moment only a very small number are really present in our consciousness.

How is that comprehensive world of sensual possibilities selected down to that very few that we’re conscious of? This is happening every second of our lives. Well, the answer is, very rarely do we do so on an intentional basis; it is done for us by our emotions. Our emotions are constantly choosing what it is that we respond to sensually. So it is a reflection of and an expression of that emotion. If that is true you can understand then how landscape is character, because everything that surrounds us is constantly picking up and gaining valence, an emotional valence from our perception of it.

Is that something that you perceive as an insider to those landscapes or an outsider? You speak frequently of exiles.

The exile probably stands in relationship to his landscape as an artist does to life and that is as both an insider and an outsider.

The places in which you have located your fiction, are these places which are important to you personally?

Sure. Of course, they have to be. All places are important to me personally. Every place I go is important to me personally. Those are the ones I find particularly rich in metaphorical possibility, sensual possibility for the characters that I have.

I see, now that you secured the Pulitzer Prize, Louisiana is eager to claim you for its own; I’m sure St. Louis is probably making a bid on much the same ground; New York will take a quick scan at your recent biography and at the ten years you spent there compared to the eight you spent in Louisiana and put their bid in.

Chicago, I had about six years in too. They’re doing their bid.

There you have it. But for you, as a writer, in terms of where you locate and identify yourself, sometimes that is not a function of time.

No.

Would you agree that the place you might most strongly identify with might be, as in the case of Vietnam, a place where you actually spent only a year of your life?

Sure.

Is there any place that you identify with most closely?

I would say at this point, and it can change for a person too, so I would certainly say that at this point my personal identification is unquestionably with Louisiana. Particularly southern Louisiana.

And that is what gave rise to A Good Scent?

Yes, certainly. It was deeply rooted here. If I had been in southern California instead of southern Louisiana I probably could still have written this book, because there are Vietnamese communities there as well.

Was it your acquaintanceship of these specific communities which created that correspondence with and the setting for those stories?

Yes. The places I knew were southern Louisiana. I don’t think the book would have been quite as rich in southern California, say, because there is an interplay here with landscape and climate and in the southern Louisiana cultures too. The voodoo, too. For instance, “Love”—which is one of my favorites in the book—would never have been written in southern California. So, that book is deeply rooted here. I would have written a book about Vietnamese expatriates if I had not had the opportunity to come to Louisiana, but this particular book, the book that won the Pulitzer Prize, is deeply and inextricably rooted, bound up with southern Louisiana. On a personal basis, this is where I feel most at home, and where I intend to stay. I certainly have a lot of options now, but my firm intention—as long as the legislature doesn’t destroy the university system in the state, which at times seems like a possibility—my intention is to stay in Louisiana. Because I really feel like a Louisianian now.

Gee, how would you characterize that?

Not in abstract terms. It is a very sensual thing.

Why don’t we leave it at that.

Mark Ford (review date 12 May 1994)

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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 disconcerting to find the President of the United States so clearly in the grip of the same fantasy of revenge.

The internal strife bequeathed by Vietnam has proved almost as intractable as the war itself. As everyone knows, more American soldiers have killed themselves—often after killing other people first—in the years since the war than actually died in battle. In Dispatches, Michael Herr describes meeting an ocean-eyed Lurp (a former member of a Long Range Patrol) who, between tours, would stick a hunting rifle out of the window of his parents’ home and draw aim on passing cars and people: ‘It used to put my folks real uptight,’ he tells Herr. In Thom Jones's ‘Break on Through,’ the incredibly savage Baggit also has trouble hacking it ‘back in the World’: a few months after his return, laden with honours, he barricades himself in a beauty parlour with his mother for 14 hours before shooting her and then himself. When the police break in and find the bodies, a bag of heroin and a blood-stained Medal of Honor, an all too appropriate song by The Doors happens to be playing on Mrs Baggit's radio—‘This is the end, my only friend, the end …’

War stories are normally told by survivors about others—friends or enemies—who didn’t make it. Often the story itself becomes part of the process of surviving. One of the purest examples of this is Tim O’Brien's ‘The Man I Killed,’ a preternaturally lucid description of a young Vietnamese soldier blown up by the narrator's grenade. O’Brien's precise, almost entranced detailing of the star-shaped hole where one of the man's eyes used to be, his torn ear lobe, his scattered sandals, a butterfly alighting on his chin, are punctuated by the urgings of a fellow grunt to put it all behind him. ‘You want to trade places with him?’ Kiowa demands. ‘Turn it all upside down—you want that?’ The story brilliantly reveals how that's exactly what he does want, for only by imagining the dead soldier's life as fully as possible can he cope with the trauma of having ended it.

The Recon Marines who feature in the Vietnam stories in Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest have no such qualms about killing. ‘There was a reservoir of malice, poison and vicious sadism in my soul, and it poured forth freely in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam,’ says the narrator of the title story: ‘I committed unspeakable crimes and got medals for it.’ Jones is not much concerned with the cultural or ideological dimensions of the war, beyond noting the bizarre moral warps which convert psychopathic killers into national heroes, and back again. In ‘Break on Through’ the compulsively violent Baggit is sentenced to hanging for the murder of a US naval officer, then ‘popped’ from death row to strut his stuff in the jungle once again. There he slices off his victims’ noses, and leaves an ace of spades in their mouths.

Jones presents combat as an ecstatic but essentially solitary trip, a quest for the hallucinatory ‘purple fields’ (the phrase is adapted from Jimi Hendrix's ‘Purple Haze’ of 1967) of invulnerable power:

If you tap into the purple field you get a sixth sense, heightened hearing, a field of vision that picks up anything that shouldn’t be there, the smell of Charles, and even on some of the blackest nights on earth, I had the ability to see Charles in fields of purple—literally sense his location, see his energy and assume control of it and be the first to kill.

This is to be ‘High on War,’ as the helmet graffito used to run, with little possibility of ever coming down. The narrator—nicknamed Hollywood—begins to wonder if he hasn’t made some sort of irrevocable deal with the devil, whom he sees one night in the jungle, dressed in a Humphrey Bogart hat, a Burberry raincoat, and trailing a tail that is ‘muscular, purple, and thick with spines.’

In these stories, Vietnam appears as a kind of playground for psychos and serial killers. Jones ostentatiously avoids the redeeming stances and gestures traditionally inspired by the horrors of war—compassion and respect for the enemy, the routines of male bonding, political outrage. His crazy gang of combat-addicts operate only in the context of their own lethal skills and fantasies, almost as indifferent to their own survival as to anyone else's. At one point Baggit saves the narrator from certain death, but all Hollywood feels is humiliation for ‘acting like such a cherry,’ and momentary regret: ‘I almost wish Baggit would have let me walk into the RPG round. I wouldn’t have felt a thing.’

The primal Baggit may know the purple fields better than anyone, but, accordingly, he is least likely of all to adjust to civilian life. His end in the beauty parlour comes as no surprise to Hollywood, who realises that for someone that mean and tough there can be no permanent cure. Since Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1975) the Vietnam vet on the rampage has cropped up so frequently in American mythology he has become an icon of the country's self-divisions and betrayals. Jones doesn’t present Baggit sentimentally or symbolically; if his death is significant, it's mainly because it happens to coincide with the news of Jim Morrison's, on 9 July 1971. It is while brooding on his great idol's having broken on through to the other side that Hollywood at last concedes, ‘you could say it was a good thing that the war was finally over.’

Drafted American soldiers in Vietnam tended to measure the war's progress wholly in terms of their own 13-month tours. They often painted calendars on their flak jackets and crossed off the days and months as they elapsed. (Michael Herr memorably recalls seeing on a clothes dump a mangled jacket recording 12 months served in-country; the list ends one month shot ‘like a clock stopped by a bullet.’) Time and commitment were personal matters—‘Time Is on My Side’ was another popular helmet slogan—unrelated to any sense of historical purpose or meaning. Hollywood and Baggit's psychedelic killing sprees might be seen as an extreme example of this. For the North Vietnamese, in complete contrast, the conflict was the endgame of decades of fighting. As Bao Ninh—who fought in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade of the NVA—makes devastatingly clear in his first novel, the sorrows of war were long a part of the fabric of everyday life in Vietnam. While most US troops served out their magical mystery tours and then rotated back home—or, like Hollywood, who pulls three tours, discover a taste for it and sign up for further trips to the purple fields—for the North Vietnamese the war could end only with victory or, more usually, their own deaths. Of the five hundred original members of Bao Ninh's brigade, only ten survived. The Sorrow of War is a more complete and humanly engaging work of fiction than any written by an American about Vietnam—with the possible exception of O’Brien's The Things They Carried—because it locates the war in such a full range of social and historical contexts. The black humour which permeates American versions of Vietnam can also function as a means of undermining the reality of the events described: the surreal looniness of it all has been rendered so often and vividly—in books such as Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers, films such as Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket—that it has become harder than ever to comprehend the war as a historical fact.

The success of The Sorrow of War derives largely from its formal inventiveness. Ninh structures fragments of his experience before, during and after his career in the Army into a collage-like whole much greater than the sum of its parts. Though the war's effects are everywhere, Ninh's multi-faceted approach to his material is a courageous and deliberate attempt to discover ways of overcoming its power to terrify and dehumanise. The novel's cuts and dissolves and switches between first and third person embody the habits of consciousness on which the main character's sanity depends. The book gradually develops into an act of resistance to the war's impact, a healing means of integrating the simplicities of combat with the complexities of other dimensions of existence—love, friendship, family, the problems and possibilities of writing.

The book's central protagonist, Kien, serves as a scout in the army, and is the only member of his unit to survive. His narrow escapes from death are so numerous and unlikely that he is baffled and guilt-ridden by his persistent luck. Back in Hanoi after the war, sunk in depression, abandoned by his girlfriend, he suddenly realises what might release him from the hell of his past: ‘I must write! To rid myself of these devils, to put my tormented soul finally to rest instead of letting it float in a pool of shame and sorrow.’ Bao Ninh is careful not to impose any strict narrative scheme on his character's experiences. Instead they emerge piecemeal, according to the logic of his slowly unfreezing memory; this unforced patterning allows him to describe terrible events—such as the gang-rape of a female guide by a whole patrol of American soldiers—without hysteria or evasiveness.

Despite his commitment to the Communist cause, Kien finds it almost impossible to orient himself in post-war Vietnamese society. Marooned in the ‘painful but glorious days’ of his past, he rather resembles the characters of Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: all of these concern South Vietnamese immigrants who have settled, for the most part happily, in Louisiana, yet who hark constantly back to their earlier lives in Saigon. Even those determined to assimilate—like the successful businessman who buys one of the shoes John Lennon was wearing the day he was murdered, and religiously slips it on every evening—are torn between Vietnamese and American customs. The stories skillfully trace the dilemmas and pains of immigrant experience, and they also constitute a wide-ranging elegy for Saigon. Butler served in Vietnam as a linguist in the early Seventies, and is particularly acute when exploring the effects of the invading forces’ absolute ignorance of Vietnamese culture. In ‘Open Arms,’ for instance, a Viet Cong scout whose wife and family have been murdered by his own side defects to an Australian platoon; as part of their welcome they show him some Swedish porn films which so appall him that later that night he shoots an infantry officer and then commits suicide.

Some misunderstandings are less tragic. In ‘Fairy Tale’ a Saigon bar girl falls instantly in love with an American diplomat when he ends an official speech with a cryptic sentence in Vietnamese which she understands to mean: ‘The sunburnt duck is lying down.’ The phrase strikes her as a magical proverb prophesying regeneration (‘The duck is not burned up, destroyed. He is only sunburnt. He is just lying down and can get up when he wants to’), but in fact the diplomat was attempting to say; ‘May Vietnam live for ten thousand years.’ When she finally discovers this they are already settled together in America; she leaves him at once, yet ends the story fulfilling her fairy tale with another Vietnam vet whom she meets one night in a bar in New Orleans.

Although the war is the decisive disruptive event in all these characters’ lives, Butler's approach to it is oblique and subtly angled. His most extended treatment of its aftermath comes in a long story that describes the bizarre interaction of two ex-soldiers, one from the South Vietnamese and one from the US Army, who happen to meet on holiday in Mexico. On a trip to the location where Burton and Taylor's The Night of the Iguana was filmed, the two find themselves compulsively replaying their old combat manoeuvres, stalking each other up and down a scrubby hillside, attempting to kill each other with stones rather than bullets or grenades, still, like Kien and Hollywood, in thrall to their searing experiences of war.

The last decade's deluge of Vietnam-related films, fictions, popular songs, TV dramas—there's even a soap called Tour of Duty—can be interpreted as part of a similar attempt at exorcism. ‘This war's gonna end some day,’ the smell-of-napalm-loving Robert Duvall character in Apocalypse Now mournfully observes; but one sometimes wonders. In Out of the Sixties David Wyatt argues that Vietnam remains ‘the defining thing, our war, our story,’ and he compares it to an iceberg, ‘a mostly submerged history that cruises through our dreams.’ Oddly though, he in the end makes very few connections between the work of his eclectically chosen band of artists—who range from Bruce Springsteen to Alice Walker, George Lucas to Louise Glück—and the specific linguistic, narrative, or political problems posed by Vietnam.

For such as Bruce Springsteen the most immediate issue was the draft. In the event he failed his physical on account of injuries sustained in a motorbike accident the previous year, but like everyone of his age knew ‘some guys who went and didn’t come back, and some who came back and weren’t the same,’ to quote from one of the long, horribly mawkish monologues with which he prefaces his songs in concert. In his enormously popular Vietnam vet song ‘Born in the USA,’ released in 1984, Springsteen astutely combined disgust at the treatment accorded returning servicemen with a chorus which, however ironically meant, always ends up arousing just the sort of patriotic fervour that makes wars possible. Despite its wholly disenchanted view of nationalism, this, paradoxically, is the anthem that sets stadiums full of Boss fans punching the air as if at a Nuremberg rally. The song—or at least its refrain—appealed particularly to Ronald Reagan, who used to quote it whenever he was on the stump in New Jersey.

The difficulties inherent in attempts to separate out pity for those drafted and sent over ‘to go and kill the yellow man’ from political endorsement of the war are perhaps best observed in Michael Herr's Dispatches, to which Wyatt devotes one of his most incisive chapters. Herr—who ‘covered’ the war for Esquire, only to find instead that it ‘covered’ him—is clear about his own relationship with all he witnesses. ‘I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach me, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.’ Herr has no patience with journalism's myths of objectivity: when asked on a plane back to San Francisco if he found it difficult to stay ‘detached,’ he replies, ‘Impossible.’ His writing owes its unique authenticity and power to just this lack of detachment, the urgent involvement of his language with the events described. Herr has been compared with Crane and Hemingway, but the war writer he seems to me most to resemble is Walt Whitman, who set a similar premium on personal engagement: ‘I am the man, I suffered, I was there.’

It is this which enables Herr to mediate the war in terms at once responsive and unflinching. Encounters with casually brutal grunts (‘We had this gook and we was gonna skin him’), kill-hungry frontiersmen, deranged spooks—one of whom reveals a scheme to win the war by dropping piranha fish into the paddies of North Vietnam—overworked doctors, exultant gunship pilots (‘We sure brang some pee down to bear on them hills’), the traumatised Marines besieged at Khe Sanh, are all presented by Herr primarily as elements of his own war experience: he can only tell their stories once they have become part of his own. The more desperate their implications, the harder they prove to assimilate—as, for instance, the enigmatic tale recounted by the third-tour Lurp mentioned earlier, which it takes Herr a year to understand: ‘Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.’

Herr is enjoined everywhere he goes, even by ‘bonedumb’ grunts, to witness and speak of their suffering. ‘You go on out of here you cocksucker,’ one urges him, ‘but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man. If you don’t tell it …’ Wyatt is particularly acute on the way Dispatches balances its various structural units-sentence, story, chapter—so as to prevent each individual's private terrors or exhilarations becoming merely illustrative of some unfelt conception of the war. The moral and psychic importance of trusting one's own immediate responses is as central to Herr's vision as to O’Brien's in ‘The Man I Killed.’ (Herr, too, compulsively observes dead bodies, which he compares to ‘looking at first porn, all the porn in the world.’) Both Introduction and Conclusion embody this same point: the book opens with Herr contemplating an old map left over from French colonial times, and pondering the uselessness of all abstract chartings of the war's terrain, and it ends by insisting on everyone's personal participation in the conflict: ‘Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.’

The extent of the war's impact on Wyatt's other chosen artists, particularly Sue Miller, Ethan Mordden and Ann Beattie, is much harder to determine. Out of the Sixties suffers from the lack of any clear-cut thesis capable of binding such disparate figures together, beyond some pretty routine claims for their shared ability to ‘engage with history.’ His readings of individual bodies of work are often illuminating enough, but never quite cohere into the portrait of a generation the book's title advertises. Many of his evaluations I found provocative rather than persuasive: Gregory Orr as one of the era's ‘strongest poets’? Is the Star Wars trilogy really so wonderful? Sam Shepard has written some tremendous plays, but is A Lie of the Mind one of them?

One wouldn’t argue, though, with Wyatt's general assertion that Vietnam is still America's most significant ‘wound, the looming mistake and defeat of this half-century.’ And the stories the war generated, particularly when told by such as Tim O’Brien or Michael Herr or Philip Caputo or Francis Ford Coppola, still seem a more effective way of dealing with its lingering legacy than the denials of black humour, or the ferocious fireworks display of Desert Storm.

Helen Heritage August (review date August 1994)

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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 of someone from a different culture.

I disagree with this view. It is a view that I believe restricts a writer to recreating entirely from her own experience, gender, place, and heredity. Surely, it is the down-side of political correctness.

What a glorious relief to read Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The fifteen stories in this book by a Pulitzer Prize winner are told entirely in the first person, in the voice of Vietnamese people, male and female, young and old.

Butler has not only looked carefully at the people he portrays, he has the capacity to look deeply within himself.

He is well qualified to write of the Vietnamese, serving as he did as a linguist with the American army in Vietnam and teaching in Louisiana where large numbers of Vietnamese have settled. But we have all met individuals who, despite years of living overseas, have a cultural imprint so fixed, so entirely and utterly set, that they appear to be untouched by their surroundings.

In ‘Fairy Tale,’ Miss Noi, a bar-girl in a club in New Orleans, remembers her life in Saigon. Here are some examples:

I am a Catholic girl and I have a large statue of Mary in my room. That statue is Mary the mother of God, not Mary Magdalene, who was a bargirl one time, too.

I sleep with men in Saigon … Only when they love me very much I ask them to get me something. In the place where the GI eats, they have something I cannot get … This thing is an apple.

In New Orleans, I buy many apples. I eat them in America whenever I want to. But is that memory not better? A GI who loves me brings me an apple and I put it on the table where Mary sits and after that man is sleeping and the room is dark, I walk across the floor … I watch the dark roofs of Saigon and the moon rising and I eat my apple.

In the title story, ‘A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain,’ a very old man receives his family and friends before his expected death. At night he is visited by Ho Chi Minh—a friend of his youth in London and Paris. Ho has a strange coating of sugar on his hands and is anxiously trying to remember the recipe for glazing he learnt from the Great Escoffier.

All the old man wants is harmony in his family and, in the broader sense, harmony for the Vietnamese people, but during a visit by his family, he realizes that his grandson has committed a political murder. He shot a man who said that it was time to accept the reality of the communist government in Vietnam. The old man begins to yearn for the peace of death:

Ho is right, of course. I will never say a word about my grandson. And perhaps I’ll be as restless as Ho when I join him … He and I will be together again and perhaps we can help each other. I know now what it is that he has forgotten. He has used confectioners’ sugar for his glaze fondant and he should be using granulated sugar. I was only a washer of dishes but I did listen carefully when Monsieur Escoffier spoke. I wanted to understand everything. His kitchen was full of such smells that you knew you had to understand everything or you would be incomplete forever.

The novella-length story, ‘The American Couple,’ is brilliant in its subtlety and strength. A middle-aged woman, addicted to the popular American culture of game-shows and soapies, comes to realize how far she has moved away from her husband—and her Vietnamese self—when, during a holiday she won on a game-show by dressing up as a duck, she and her husband are befriended by an American Vietnam veteran and his wife.

All the stories are full of fascinating detail, quirky, complex, often funny, but always moving, and throughout them runs a subtle sense of a people lamenting for their lost homeland.

What is my job as a writer? That's what I asked the editor of that literary magazine. And I ask you: Isn’t it the writer's task to transcend herself at times, to leap over the wall of cultural boundaries? The poet J. S. Harry said in an interview in fine line in 1988: ‘I simply write to go as hard, as far, and as deep as I can.’

Robert Olen Butler has gone both deep and high, taking a mighty leap over a wall that can restrict and diminish us, and in doing so, he shows what can be achieved.

Lorrie Smith (essay date spring 1995)

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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 continued to develop as writers have found ways to express not only personal trauma but the larger schisms and crises which constitute the cultural legacy of Vietnam. For critic Philip Beidler, the magnitude of the literary enterprise by “Vietnam authors in their generation” constitutes nothing less than a redefinition of literary possibility in an age of narrative minimalism and postmodern exhaustion:

To look at that work of achievement is to see a single recurrent focus: the desire, born of their immediate sense of the impact of the American experience of Vietnam upon American cultural mythology at large, to reconstitute that mythology as a medium both of historical self-reconsideration and, in the same moment, of historical self-renewal and even self-reinvention.

If Beidler's terms are a bit grandiose, nevertheless they point to the ways post-Vietnam fiction by veterans constitutes a literature of cultural revision as well as a literature of witness. The best of this writing voices the yearnings and disappointments of a whole generation shaped, scarred, and even labeled by the Vietnam war.

Robert Olen Butler, whose Vietnam trilogy, Alleys of Eden (1981), Sun Dogs (1982), and On Distant Ground (1985) is an important contribution to this tradition, has been highly esteemed for his stylistic innovations and breadth of historical vision. He turned to other themes in Countrymen of Bones (1983), Wabash (1987), and The Deuce (1989), and recently-expanded the boundaries of post-war fiction in a deeply empathetic and luminous collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and led Henry Holt to re-issue Butler's previous novels. In these stories, Butler—who is fluent in Vietnamese and has returned to Vietnam several times since his 1971 tour as an interpreter and military intelligence officer—adopts voices of Vietnamese refugees re-settled in his home state of Louisiana. These are powerful and convincing stories of victims who remain invisible and inconsequential to most Americans. Examining what Henry Louis Gates would call the “hyphen” in Vietnamese-American, they provide a perspective sorely needed in our collective reworking of the costs and meanings of the Vietnam war.

Butler's new novel, They Whisper, stakes radically different territory in its exploration of heterosexual male desire. Yet this novel, preoccupied as so many post-Vietnam novels are with ghosts from the past and the malleability of memory, must be read in a post-Vietnam context. They Whisper is distinctly a novel of middle-age; the disillusionment of its Vietnam veteran protagonist, Ira Holloway, is shared by many in Butler's baby boom generation, much as Hemingway's anti-heroes express the general malaise of their Lost Generation. (Parallels between World War I and Vietnam are plentiful and often-noted.) Ira embodies losses rooted not so much in the war itself but in the dissolution of Camelot and all the imperialistic ideals that drew Americans into the quagmire in the first place. There is a kind of nostalgia for innocence bordering on ignorance which seems to be the peculiar birthright of white Americans who grew up in the fifties and early sixties. It is Butler's achievement that he dramatizes this condition without pathos, in a plot that is serious, original, and compelling for all readers, though women will no doubt approach the novel with caution. Like Tim O’Brien in Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, Butler is intrigued by the regenerative possibilities of the imagination, here linked insistently to masculine libido. Without O’Brien's metafictional intricacies, Butler approaches the kind of reworking of cultural mythos Beidler identifies in so many veterans’ writings.

The task Butler has set for himself is not an easy or comfortable one; indeed, I suspect it reproduces the quandary experienced by many well-meaning men these days: how does a sensitive, enlightened guy navigate the turbulent waters of postfeminist culture in order to express old-fashioned, lusty male sexuality? The dangers, of course, loom ominously: he could flounder in a kind of narrative Dead Sea where authentic erotic feelings are sublimated to politically correct formulas, or he could risk offending and even alienating readers sensitive to any sign of female objectification or misogyny. Butler, who is savvy enough to know that gender-neutral readers are a myth of the past, counts on his narrator's earnest honesty and sometimes bemused good intentions to gain the reader's trust. He chooses, in feminist terms, a kind of essentialism that purports “to tell the truth about my life in this body of mine … in the ways that it really happens, through my senses.” Such subjective truth is convincing, for Butler has a keen talent for precise description and vivid imagery. The reader does not need a phallus to empathize with the protagonist's very human desire to connect with others through the body. Though the sensual and sexual truths Ira reveals are quite different from my own as a female reader, I have no reason to doubt that they are true for Ira and, perhaps, for Robert Olen Butler and many other men. At times I was very moved by Ira's struggle to give shape and utterance to memory and desire.

But at times I was also maddened by the novel's failure to acknowledge and explore larger truths implicitly underlying Ira's encounters with women and Butler's representations of female characters. Here, desire for uncomplicated sexual innocence seems to rest with the author as well as his speaker, unless we are meant to take his last name, “Holloway,” as an ironic signal. Ira is driven by a kind of obtuse, boyish yearning for women—all women, any women—unhindered by the exigencies of history or grown-up responsibilities. As adolescent fantasy, this is an understandable desire, but as grown-up fiction, it's a bit thin. While Ira can’t sustain this innocence—his fall constitutes the core of the plot—the reasons for his disillusionment always seem to lie outside of him. Along the way, his lyrical homages to the “lovely particularities” (invariably physical) of the women he's known do come close to objectification. As writers like Adrienne Rich pointed out long ago, tacit assumptions about masculine power are not so different or far away from the ethnocentric assumptions leading to America's involvement in Vietnam, and it is more than coincidental that the women's movement was simultaneous with the anti-war movement. If anything in the post-Vietnam era has undergone seismic shifts and demands re-invention, it is the stories we tell about men and women. Adopting one of the oldest stances in literature—male reverence for female bodies and mysterious otherness—this novel ultimately tells a familiar story. Ira does grow up to understand that desire has limits, but he never seems fully to understand why. Without wanting to stretch too far, I am tempted to draw an analogy to our national rush to put the Vietnam war to rest—to “kick the Vietnam syndrome”—without confronting its root causes and meanings in our national psyche. Butler would no doubt be the first to insist that we remember the war fully and deeply; in voicing Ira's desire for uncomplicated, pure eros he may offer, perhaps inadvertently, a true insight into the American national character.

They Whisper is a beautifully constructed novel whose modulations capture the vicissitudes of memory. Aside from an annoying preponderance of run-on, Molly Bloom-ish sentences meant to suggest the breathless urgency of desire, the novel is full of lilting passages and sharp, original images. Beginning when Ira is thirty-five and contemplating the demise of his marriage in light of “the undying life of all the intimacies I have been blessed with in these thirty-five years,” the book syncopates two narrative rhythms which finally merge in the present. Butler's central metaphor is spatial—every woman Ira Holloway ever loved, touched, fantasized about, or glimpsed with desire roams in idealized, youthful splendor within his psychic landscape:

All of the women who have stirred me in all their special and surprising ways: they are all connected, they are a vast landscape and it's only there that I can truly reckon time and space and it has nothing to do with this other time and space, the one that most people think of as now, and maybe this is one reason why I’ve got to say all of this. …

This synchronic space is evoked through a kind of Proustian remembrance heavily dependent on sensory associations. For instance, the smell of Ivory soap in an office lavatory shoots Ira back to “a Saigon smell” and the memory of lunch-hour interludes with Miss Hue at the Honeysuckle massage parlor. Memories intrude and insinuate—as they do in consciousness—upon the more linear narrative of Ira's intense romance and marriage to Fiona Price, whom he met when he was recently returned from Vietnam and who intrigued him because he sensed she was “different in some way, right from the first.” It is this second plot—inexorably linear and tragic—which charts the erosion of Ira's faith in the unlimited possibilities of sexual connection and renewal. The syncopation of these two realms—desire and disillusionment, essential sex and social complexity—makes for many provocative juxtapositions and tensions in the novel.

The rhythm of timeless desire figured by the landscape in fact coheres into an autobiographical progression through time, from Ira's earliest adolescent fantasies and intimations that his puritanical mother's disgust for sex was perverse, through his many passionate exploits as a young man (never, apparently, leading to relationships), and towards the more constricted horizon of middle-age. For all its sensory and imaginative vitality, however, this foregrounding of Ira's life as a sexual being sometimes feels a bit claustrophobic and skewed. All of the flashbacks to Vietnam, for instance, focus on sexual encounters with women—bar girls, prisoners, whores, even an aristocratic revolutionary for extra dangerous excitement. One misses the richer social and political texture Butler brings to life in other books. Passing faces on the street, a sleeping woman on a commuter train, a woman's voice and jangling bracelet on a Vietnamese language-training tape, other men's wives—all commingle in Ira's erotic-imaginative landscape. In the rosy glow of memory, all the women are beautiful and responsive; Ira rises to every erotic opportunity, and even when he is paying for sex, women vibrate to his sensitivity and thrill to his touch. This makes for some lovely, juicy passages, but at times, Ira's exuberance seems almost ludicrous, as when a waitress leaves a bottle of wine on his table and Ira grows faint with desire at the “corona of foggy condensation around the place where her fingers had touched the bottle.” In his most ecstatic moments, the women in Ira's landscape merge into each other or get ticked off like notches on a bedstand:

Rebecca and Hoa and Maria and Olga. Rebecca and Hoa and Maria and Olga and Fiona. Rebecca and Hoa and Maria and Olga and Fiona and Xau and Blossom and Amanda and a woman in a passing pickup truck and a woman in a passing subway and Betty and Jane and Karen and Hue and tiny-Hand … for me, time is Hoa's hair followed by Rebecca's lips followed by Rebecca's ankles followed by Maria's toes followed by the hollow of Olga's throat and I have no choice about any of that, really.

While Ira means to suggest the organic wholeness of his landscape, the effect, for me, is a naming of interchangeable female parts, the women's own individual integrity giving way to the fragmentary forces of Ira's memory.

This close-up technique, while perhaps true to the life of the senses and the nature of memory, has its narrative limits. In particular, representations of Vietnamese women veer uncomfortably close to stereotypes of Asian exoticism and difference. Though there are fleeting references to lost families and political exigencies, Ira's memories are not deepened by meditation on the moral and political conditions that determine choices in these women's lives. As serious as he is about their erotic selves, he never considers how American presence displaced so many women and led them from country villages to Saigon bars and massage parlors, and he rarely wonders about their futures. Perhaps it is simply unsettling to have the war subordinated to sexual liaisons in Vietnam, but at times this seems like a serious imbalance. While Ira realizes some of the women he loved are dead, his memory is never troubled by a sense of complicity or regret for the havoc Americans brought to the Vietnamese people.

In bringing Ira's memories to life, Butler has him imagine the voices of many of the women in his past—the voices which continue to whisper to him and which, he claims, form part of his own voice and consciousness. The book is, on one level, an attempt to understand these voices, to translate what Ira calls the “pussy voice whispering to me.” While empathetic first-person narratives worked extremely well in Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, where they were unmeditated and suggested the integrity of each character in self-contained stories, here the technique is riskier. The voices do not emanate from women as autonomous characters, as in Faulkner or Joyce, but from Ira's own stream of consciousness imagining the inner lives of the women he loves. Nor are they distinguished by styles and rhythms different from Ira's or from each other; again, they seem to form a sort of composite female voice in Ira's head. Clearly, this is an attempt to penetrate women's otherness and give them perspectives separate from Ira's, and it prevents the women from becoming completely static objects in Ira's landscape. However, these are not voices linked to any form of agency in the novel, only Ira's projection of his lovers’ needs and motives in relation to himself.

If Ira is ultimately confounded by female difference, the landscape metaphor does allow him to express poignant truths about human separateness and the difficulties of intimacy, for he has the wisdom to recognize that others have landscapes whose maps are very different from his. His son, John, “will have his own landscape and I will be out of place in it, just as, ultimately, he is out of place in mine.” Fiona, likewise, is finally beyond reach, for

she had a landscape of her own inside her and all the men who had touched her lived there and I wish her landscape was like mine, even though I realize that part of what I have to figure out is what this place inside me means and if I can live there anymore, but if Fiona could’ve visited those men over and over when she needed and they could’ve whispered to her and she could’ve loved them again, then maybe she would’ve been all right. But that was impossible, of course.

These “would haves” and “could haves” suggest the convergence of past and present and Ira's central dilemma in the linear plot—his inability, finally, to alter the past and its impact on the present. For Fiona, passionate, intelligent, and loving as she is, turns out to inhabit a sort of Bosch landscape of her own whose demons ultimately destroy her marriage, her family, and herself. The moment Ira longs to change but cannot has to do with Fiona's abuse by her father and abandonment by her mother. This past intrudes upon their landscape in the form of neurotic possessiveness and crippling jealousy. With the birth of a son, John, the Freudian family drama moves inexorably toward destruction in a landscape marked by images of closed rooms, subway tunnels, roller coasters, and water. Imagining that she is protecting her unborn child, Fiona withholds sex during her pregnancy; to satisfy her hunger for connection, she demands—and Ira complies with—bizarre rituals of performance and economies of eros afterward. In the novel's ultimate irony, sex for Ira is transformed from ecstatic transport into dreaded chore. Fiona turns to the Catholic Church of her youth to assuage her imagined guilt and to seek forgiveness, and demands that Ira and John partake in religious observance, as well. Father and son humor the mother, lie to her, and end up as complicit allies in this triangle, while Fiona—both maternal virgin and castrating witch—is left alone with her demons, implicitly blamed for the demise of the family. For all his desire to save Fiona, to paint a different landscape of her past, Ira is strangely passive through this whole drama. As the plot is constructed, he is trapped, his only choices to abandon his son to a fanatically religious, doomed mother or to play along with her fantasies and hope for the best. Needless to say, Fiona can’t survive and Ira and John can’t emerge unscathed.

Ira does, however, grow to understand the limits of intimacy. On one hand, his erotic landscape seems endlessly regenerative, his past telling him

there was a future before me, there was a future full of women I would love, women I would yearn for and leap with and rise to and give to and give and dream with and that was what had always quickened me, what had given me this keen presence in the world.

On the other hand, feeling trapped by his marriage, “I could sense no future at all.” In the end, love springs eternal, in the form of a new relationship with a woman who is pointedly represented as level-headed and maturely autonomous. This time, however, unbridled passion is reigned in, and Rebecca and Ira wait until Fiona is no longer a threat before they consummate their love. When they do, the narrative reaches its most exquisite release, their two voices merging in a stream:

At last, and she feels the rush and I fall deeper into her and her eyes are on mine but now they close softly and open again, in rapture, I know, the rapture has come and we are one flesh and we rise together we rise and we are one flesh in that moment, We.

The book does not end on this happily-ever-after chord, but admits that the mysteries of sex are momentary and ultimately impenetrable, that love may not heal all wounds. Ira's path, in the end, may indeed be a “hollow way.” For shadowing his erotic landscape is a more menacing landscape, figured throughout the book by images of toxic technology: smokestacks towering over Ira's hometown of Wabash, Illinois, a shoe store x-ray machine that gives a startlingly intimate look at to-year-old Karen Granger's foot bones, the molten street tar Karen takes suggestively into her mouth, Ira and his friends riding their bikes in 1955 behind a truck emitting a cloud of mosquito spray. The novel's last paragraph quite deftly comes full circle and suggests that the whole Vietnam generation—all those who grew up in the innocent-ignorant fifties and who were shaped by that war—have somehow been poisoned by history itself. Karen Granger, of course, is lost to Ira in her own landscape, but he—and others of his generation—share part of its ground:

I do not know if Karen Granger's lungs now are whole, or if her blood is whole, or if her bones are whole. I only know that, as I stand on the beach at Puerto Vallarta and watch a parasailor glide out over the bay, in some less definable part of me, I am not.

The truths Butler tells are, finally, truths about the life of the body, which is also the life of the spirit. They Whisper may not rewrite the old stories of male desire of Freudian family drama, but it chips away at American myths of endless new beginnings and frontiers by suggesting losses and limits lodged in the deepest cells of our bodies.

Jonathan Penner (review date 10 November 1996)

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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 encounters with extraterrestrials. Many chronicle spectacular miscarriages of love—“Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband,” “Woman Hit by Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac,” “Every Man She Kisses Dies.”

Tabloid stories are sideshow freaks. They recount suffering so bizarre, and offenses of such enormity, that we can only laugh in horror. What fellow feeling have we for men who commit monstrosities or women who birth them? Far from sympathizing with such people, we quickly doubt that they exist at all. For of course tabloid claims are thoroughly fake.

But not so fast. In Tabloid Dreams Robert Olen Butler's agenda is to normalize and naturalize these freaks. After unembarrassedly granting each preposterous premise, he shows plain human life—the genuine article—sprouting in the very midst of absurdity. Here are real people tragically locked in unreal lives.

That painful paradox gives these stories their force and value. Who would expect a charge of recognition from this ontological quarter? We know perfectly well that these things (most of them) can’t happen. But we also know that if they could, if in fact they happened to us, this is just how we would feel in consequence.

“Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” is a fun house mirror of our courtship practices. Its comic juxtapositions are seen, for instance, in the heroine's perplexity: Can her lover—lipless, earless, equipped with numerous fingers and lots of tiny suckers—be stimulated by a show of cleavage? But in the sphere of the emotions, nothing whatever is bizarre. The heroine's eagerness for love and her joy at being chosen to receive it, her anguished decision not to travel with her man back to his native place in a far cosmos, her later longing to have him back—all are taut with human feeling. This story shows how a ludicrous character can still be granted her full dignity. Amazingly, her loss leaves us almost ready to cry.

In “Jealous Husband Returns in Form Parrot,” it is the man who must love and lose and long. Imagine being purchased by your widow and hung in a cage, forced to witness her lovers’ comings and goings. Further imagine that, for language to proclaim your love and vent your pain, you have only “hello,” “pretty bird,” “cracker” and a few other squawky expressions. As a man, you want to be held by your woman. Yet, as a parrot, you are shocked by her nakedness. She looks well-plucked, and you feel not lust but pity. To protect her, you would gladly give the feathers from your own chest. Ingeniously combining the natures of man and bird, the story draws pathos from a comic metamorphosis.

Those stories with less startling premises tend to work less well. “Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis” is plodding. “Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire” loses itself in murky psychology. “JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction” requires an elaborate explanation that's too close to standard conspiracy theory. By contrast, “Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband,” one of the more astonishing conceptions, incorporates its premise with ingenuity. This is the funniest story in the book, spinning off scenes of sick hilarity. Yet the story is full of unmistakably real rage and grief.

Providing this book with an overall shape, the first and last stories are linked narratively. In “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” the speaker is a stuffy Englishman whose spirit (or something) has been incorporated into water. It has undergone evaporation, fallen as rain, gurgled through pipes. It has been drunk as tea and voided as urine. At present it resides in, yes, a waterbed. Our hero gives a lovely account of the great ship's loss and in particular of his encounter then with a beautiful young woman. He regrets not having reached out to her. And she has similar regrets, as we learn when she turns out to be the narrator of the final story, “Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle.” Thus the overarching theme of the book, a theme echoed in many of the stories, is that of passion's failure.

Tabloid Dreams is an unrepeatable feat, a tour de force in both the laudatory (great achievement) and pejorative (clever stunt) senses of the term. With comic gall, it sets itself a goal of self-transcendence. The tabloid element is at once its shtick, its limitation, and the aesthetic pit from which its fine achievement rises.

Barbara C. Ewell (review date 17 May 1997)

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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 you tell which is which? Robert Olen Butler is one writer who seems to thrive on the challenge.

In his first collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, Butler sharpened the sense of strangeness by focussing on exiles. Part of what makes the stories in that volume so compelling (apart from the recognition that Butler is just a white boy from Illinois), is that the exiles are mostly Vietnamese, often women, and that they live in south Louisiana, a part of the country whose peculiarity is pretty much certified by the Cajun twists it applies to what passes for normal in the southern United States. In Tabloid Dreams, his second collection of short stories, Butler achieves a similar angle of difference simply by going to the grocery stores and buying the perspectives of the tabloids much as we all eventually do, standing in line to exercise our habits of ridiculous consumption.

The premise—or at least the writerly trick—of these stories is an exploration of tabloid headlines as though they were true. This is a wonderful gimmick, really—and the fact that Butler is working with HBO to produce a television series based on these stories indicates just how clever the ploy is. But what makes these tales more than hilarious devices is how much truth Butler makes the incredible captions reveal about being human, and how well they expose the strangeness of our own daily life.

One of the best stories, “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover,” illustrates the kind of depth that Butler can elicit from such an apparently silly supposition. Edna Bradshaw, a 40-year-old insomniac and divorcee, finds great comfort when the “regular old Wal-Mart” of Bovary, Alabama, becomes a 24-hour Super Center. It gives her a place to go in the wee hours when her loneliness gets the best of her.

One night in the parking lot she encounters a little spaceman, whom she calls Desi—because it's the right name for someone we like even though they talk “with a funny accent.” He has been waiting for her, he says, because Edna always tells the truth: “You seem always to say what is inside your head without any attempt to alter it.” Edna is won by Desi's gentle courtship, something in short supply in Bovary (and not entirely approved by Desi's fellow planetary researchers), and she adjusts admirably to all the little shocks of his difference—his “eight-sucker hands” and big eyes, his telepathic ability and smaller-than-expected spaceship—“not as big as all of Wal-Mart certainly, maybe just the pharmacy and housewares departments put together.”

If Desi helps Edna to “see things in the larger perspective,” Edna's willingness to love a spaceman reminds us how our usual notions of what is “pretty and sweet” may need “some serious adjustments” if we hope to overcome our loneliness. That the primary antidote for such loneliness is 24-hour shopping—or loving cats (“subspecies companions”) and spacemen instead of our tyrannical daddies or fellow Bovarians—is exactly the “kind of odd thing that makes you shake your head about the way life is lived on planet Earth.”

Much of Butler's humor derives from the blunt naivete of his narrators. Like Edna, they seem not to censor themselves in commenting on their lives; and, like the tabloids themselves, they willingly tell all, revealing absurdity and shallowness but also a great deal of suffering. In Butler's Tabloid Dreams, unloved or betrayed women become deadly—bashing thick-headed men with meteorites or setting themselves on fire at baking contests they have lost like their lives. Wives and husbands learn the bitter truth about their philandering partners by becoming glass eyes or suicidal parrots; young boys revenge their absent fathers by becoming efficient hit men or their mother's lovers.

One of Butler's gifts is his obvious sympathy for these absurd people, blundering toward love and stumbling onto truths they don’t quite recognize. Like the stiffly proper narrator of “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” whose icy death transforms him into water and who ends up inside a waterbed on which lovers thrash about (after experience as clouds and rain and rivers and lakes and tea and—you know), these are “solitary travellers[s].” They only become “fully conscious” after they are dead. But they do at least see something. And so do we. By showing us how really strange things could be, Butler's stories give us new ways to look at our experience. And if his fiction makes us probe a little more deeply into the absurd dreams we all inhabit, then he's only doing his job—very well.

Susan Balée (review date summer 1997)

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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 collection, it scrutinized bodies galore. Butler is not immune to the collective unconscious, he simply does more with it.

The opening, “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed,” begins with a disembodied voice floating in a strange body of water. “I’ve grown quite used to this existence I now have. I’m fully conscious that I’m dead.” The voice belongs to a man who never really lived in his body, so did not regret its loss with the sinking of the Titanic. He says as much, remembering the night of his watery death.

All through that night, the fear was never physical. I didn’t mind so much, in point of fact, giving up a life in my body. The body was never a terribly interesting thing to me. Except perhaps to draw in the heavy curl of the smoke of my cigar, like a Hindu's rope in the market rising as if it were a thing alive. One needs a body to smoke a good cigar.

Bodiless, his purgatory involves making him understand what he lost. “And then I was rain, and the cycle began. And I moved in the clouds and in the tides and eventually I became rivers and streams and lakes and dew and a cup of tea. Darjeeling.”

The voice finally moves beyond tea water into a waterbed; above him, a couple makes love. He begins to understand the physical sensation he felt for another passenger, a woman he saved, on the last night of his life. “She stood there and she turned her face to me and I know now that she must have understood what it is to live in a body.”

One hundred sixty-five pages later, this anonymous woman passenger reappears to narrate the book's end story, “Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle,” and she too remembers that night, the man with whom she spent those last hours. However, like him, she did not “understand what it is to live in a body”; she could not physically connect with him any more than he could with her. “My hand moved, it's true, my right hand rose as if by its own intent and it came out toward him and I ached to put my hand on some part of his body, to touch him—it is my ache now, too—touch his hand, at least, perhaps even his cheek, but I could not.”

She surmises that the foreign hotel room where she finds herself decades later—but no older—is her own version of the afterlife. She thinks, “Perhaps this is the purgatory for my betrayal, a place to show me that the words must be made flesh.” The book ends with her praying for his spirit to join hers as she descends, naked, into a cold bath. As the water rises up her thighs and over her breasts, the reader may safely conclude that the disembodied male voice of the first Titanic story is no longer trapped in a waterbed! (Lap, lap, lap. …) Oh, fluent, fluid Robert Olen thank you for Tabloid Dreams.

Peter Stanford (review date 17 August 1997)

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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 Tabloid Dreams of a husband who comes back as a pet parrot to observe his widow as she sublimates her grief in a succession of lovers.

In Olen Butler's disorientating but oddly familiar world, all conventional boundaries are down; between humans and creatures, life and death, reality and the fanciful imaginings of tabloid headline writers. I couldn’t quite decide if this Pulitzer prize-winning author had assembled a series of classic Sunday Sport style headlines—‘Woman Struck by Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac,’ ‘Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis’ and ‘JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction’—and then created whimsical, upside-down, occasionally dark-edged tales to accompany them, or whether the stories came first and then he gave them a final tabloid twist when it came to the title. Either way, the result is engrossing, amusing, highly polished, but ultimately unsettling.

Take the couple whose his and hers tales begin and end the collection. They bump into each other on that familiar meeting point of fiction, the promenade deck of the beleaguered Titanic, but that is where all precedents end. For the stiff, middle-aged ex-colonial civil servant recalling his version of events that fateful night is now a globule of water in a waterbed with a couple making love above him. His body drowned when the unsinkable ship sank, but his spirit has lived on as a droplet in the currents and tides of the world and has now washed up in a mattress.

With two bodies writhing sensually above him, this disembodied spirit recalls the moment on the Titanic when he helped into a lifeboat a woman he had only met minutes before. Their final, parting touch, of her hand on his crooked bow tie, was the key moment in his life, breaking the physical isolation that had hitherto afflicted him. Logic is abandoned as Olen Butler suggests that this once warm-blooded character was actually dead before that moment and is now, because of it, fully alive as an aquatic microblob.

The woman survives, but her take on that seminal event is told in the context of her floating out of time and place. She finally wakes as if from a dream and immerses herself in a bath, ending the collection of stories on an ambiguous note. Is this suicide or the first step in a hoped-for reunion under water with the spirit of the man whose memory haunts her?

Land-locked between this unhappy pair are a variety of strange creatures inhabiting the most ordinary of bodies—nine-year-old hit men, suburban housewives in love with spacemen or cookies, single mothers with loosely tied dressing gowns and a stream of grunting lovers, young women whose kiss spells death for men, and my favourite, Loretta, the court stenographer with a glass eye.

She suspects her husband of having an affair after he takes to washing their bed sheets. In a spin that characterises Olen Butler's ‘other’ perspective, she discovers she can see through this artificial eye, but only when it is taken out of her eye-socket. So one morning she leaves it in a jar next to her bed and, as she sits typing the court-room testimonies of acrimonious husbands and wives, she watches her partner bed a younger woman.

Olen Butler has a delicious sense of irony and pays lavish homage to the black humour of such outlandish tabloid-esque tales. Yet the prevailing tide of this collection is tragic. Sad, marginalised people wander through a landscape that is both mundane and topsy-turvy. They desire for escape, often via other people, into something other than the predictable constraints of this world.

But, as Olen Butler recognises the exploits with lashings of tenderness, such voyeurism has a bitter aftertaste. Hiding behind the headlines is the small print of a million, everyday, all-too-real tragedies—dysfunctional relationships, disappointments, loneliness, brutality and drudgery. ‘Broken Dreams’ might have been a better title, for they are the thread that binds these wacky, but poignant, stories.

Susie Linfield (review date 25 January 1998)

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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 GI, is also deceased. The first two statements are lies. The last one, which she fervently believes—it is, in fact, the sun around which her emotional life revolves—will also turn out to be untrue. And it will set the stage for what is meant to be the tragic love story of Tien and Ben.

Like the classical genre to which it aspires, The Deep Green Sea raises such fundamental moral questions as: What is the price of knowledge and of truth, and what is the difference between them? Do we commit a sin against others when we deceive ourselves? What happens when we try to protect those we love by lying to them? What is the price of memory, and what happens to those who attempt to extinguish it?

Unfortunately, though, another question, both moral and literary, is raised by Butler's new novel: What happens when a writer begins to cannibalize his own work? Many, if not most, of The Deep Green Sea's themes—memory and forgetting, incest, suicide, prostitution, erotic love, the Vietnam War—were mined in his previous novel, They Whisper, a deeply flawed but nonetheless densely, beautifully evocative book. What we are presented with now, though, is Butler Lite.

Tien and Ben meet one day on a street in present-day Ho Chi Minh City and have a brief conversation about dogs; almost immediately, they are irrevocably in love. They know that they are meant for each other. They know that they are now complete. They know that this is It.

What's wrong with this picture is not exactly that it's unrealistic; no doubt such things do happen and such feelings are felt every day all over the globe. The problem with Butler's scenario is not so much that it's unconvincing as that it's simply so uninteresting. He has dispensed with characterization, with individuality, with the quirky, funny, unexpected, peculiar, tortuous, complicated ways in which people fall in love—dispensed, that is, with everything that might engage us. As readers at the end of the 20th century, we expect more from a love story than the quickie that Butler offers here. What Lionel Trilling wrote of Alexander Portnoy's neuroses applies equally well to Butler's brand of romance: “Whatever considerations of this kind may mean to us within the four walls of our private lives, as the material of art they seem no longer to make their old claim upon the imagination.”

In any case, in this instant paradise a very nasty snake soon appears. It turns out that—surprise!—while on his tour of duty in Vietnam, Ben became involved with a Vietnamese prostitute, and he begins to suspect that Tien may be his daughter. Alas, the reader may begin to harbor similar suspicions way before the lovers, since Tien “smell[s] the smoke of my father's soul” the very first time Ben kisses her. Nonetheless, she is sure Ben's fears are baseless.

Both Tien and Ben are in flight from their memories—personal, familial, historical; their love affair is not so much an intricate melding together of two life stories as it is the attempt to simplistically erase any story at all. When Saigon fell (or was liberated, depending on your perspective), Tien was abandoned by her mother on the pretext that prostitutes and their children would be punished. But though the punishments never came to pass. Tien's mother did not return. Now Tien tries to convince herself that her mother is dead, or that her mother's abandonment is a form of love; in any case, she insists, “I am no one's child” (just the sort of claim, the Greeks knew, that it's probably best to avoid). Only at the end of the book does Tien admit that her mother “saved her own life from a threat that never was, and after that, she wanted nothing from the past, including her daughter.”

But it is Ben who is by far the worst perpetrator of the crime of forgetting. He is ecstatic when Tien tells him she is a virgin because it means “there's nothing to remember, nothing to ask about, nothing but what's there for both of you right in that moment, without any history at all, that's almost too good to be true.” Indeed it is. Even when his suspicions about Tien—which are, of course, intimately tied up with his “sweet guilt” over the Vietnamese prostitute—surface, he still insists that “there's no past to reckon with, all the women I’ve ever known … have faded from me, it's as if they never existed.” Later, as he and Tien journey to a small village in hopes of finding her mother and eradicating his doubts, Ben assures himself, “[T]here is nothing of war, nothing of death, nothing of the past, there is only this joining of me and this woman … and I am at peace.” This is, of course, a series of shoddy lies.

One of the ironies of The Deep Green Sea—an irony that the author himself seems wholly unaware of—revolves around the question of truthful language. Tien, who works as a government tour guide, is a child of the revolution (she was 8 when Vietnam was reunited under the Communists), and she speaks the language of revolution, the language of war crimes and imperialism. Ben derisively dismisses such language as “propaganda-talk” and pushes Tien to speak in her own voice. But the unintended joke of this novel is that Ben's words of love are far more stilted, prefabricated and clichéd that Tien's political rhetoric: “What there is between us … I’ve never felt this way before. … Not even for my wife,” he says and, “It feels like the first time for me, too,’ and, “You can always tell me the truth.’ Compared to this, Tien sounds positively Hegelian, and at least she has a sense of humor: “Go forward for the good of the revolution,” she jokingly tells Ben the first time he penetrates her.

The only truly moving, truly alive relationship in this novel is between Tien and her father's spirit. “I am a modern girl of a great socialist state but I am not a communist,” Tien introduces herself. “I can still pray for the spirits of the dead … for the soul of my father, a soul that I have always understood to be suffering terribly in the next life and in great need of these things I offer him.” Indeed, Tien's relationship with her father's ghost is by far her most intimate one, and while her love affair with Ben has a static, overdetermined quality, her relationship with the spirit is churned up as the novel progresses.

We see Tien alternately submit to, beg, bargain with, beseech and rebel against the spirit, whose jealousy, she believes, has created Ben's doubts: “He has been curling the invisible smoke of his soul around us, making us breathe him in, and he has wisped this way into our brains, filled us with these fears to keep us apart.” She feels the spirit watching her, and she fiercely insists on her freedom to love—and make love to—whomever she chooses: “See what I do. See my nakedness. … You must accept this or I will never say another word to the gods for you.” In despair, she tries to banish the spirit: “Go find the woman you loved. … Go to her and live on her prayers for a while.” She bitterly remembers her subservience: “I wept for him for years. … I prayed for his soul and I burned the incense and offered him food and a place for his soul to rest.” And, in the book's most chilling line, the desperately vulnerable, desperately fatherless girl succinctly sums up the relationship of daughter to ghost: “I was a bargirl to him.”

Unfortunately, the climactic scene of The Deep Green Sea has none of the power and pathos that characterize Tien's struggle with her father's spirit. In fact, the confrontation between Tien, Ben and Tien's mother feels oddly flat—no great surprise, given the one-dimensionality of the characters Butler has created, but a disappointment nonetheless. And the coda evokes—inadvertently, no doubt—nothing so much as that creepy last scene of “Rosemary's Baby” and calls to mind Susan Sontag's definition of camp as “seriousness that fails.”

All this is especially disappointing coming from Robert Olen Butler, who, in They Whisper, created Ira Holloway and Fiona Price, singular characters who struggled so passionately and affectingly with both the demons and the joys of memory but who knew that the only real question was how—not whether—to embrace the past. (“All of the women who have stirred me in all their special and surprising ways: they are all connected, they are a vast landscape,” Ira says, adding later: “[S]o few of my feelings ever ended, ever really ended, they live even now.”) Conversely, in The Deep Green Sea, Butler has taken the easy way out, pimping off the grand themes of literature by creating characters who can do nothing more than schematically represent—as opposed to authentically engage—such themes.

If you’re interested in the ways in which the sins of the fathers (and mothers) stain the lives of their children, you could spend time with Sophocles or the Old Testament or Faulkner or, for that matter, They Whisper. But there's no particular reason to dive into The Deep Green Sea, which turns out to be quite shallow.

Thomas Bonner (review date 20 June 1998)

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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 possibilities and less for its own sake.

Although the Vietnam War lies too close in time for any significant romanticizing to have obscured the pain, it has continued to be a journalistic subject of numerous historical studies and the focus of much fiction. Most novels and stories do not center on the realism ordinarily associated with the historical novel; rather they use the war as a lens through which the readers might see the struggles of American soldiers splayed out thousands of miles from their homeland. Tim O’Brien's Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried offer ample evidence of this trait penetrating external realities to the longer lasting interior ones. Vietnam in the American experience provides the venue for much of Robert Olen Butler's fiction and the power that brought him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his collection of stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, since he maintains that contact with the Vietnamese changed the way America defined itself. Consequently, he saw the need to explore not only those Americans who went to war, but those Vietnamese with whom they were engaged as friends and foes, many of whom now belong to a world-wide diaspora.

In The Deep Green Sea, Butler takes his readers to the postwar “new Vietnam” and into the company of a former American soldier who has made the intimate acquaintance of a beautiful young Vietnamese woman. Benjamin Cole is “in country” as part of a quest “for things to be whole”; Le Thi Tien works as a guide tot the Government tourist agency in Saigon, a name that persists despite its new one, Ho Chi Minh City. An emphasis on names signals that names constitute an essential dimension toward self-knowledge.

The narrative opens dramatically with Ben and Tien in bed together, advances through the alternating perspectives of these two characters and addresses their current experiences and environment as well as their pasts. Butler, who takes advantage of recent interests in the shared margins between mystery fiction (Dashieil Hammett, Chester Himes) and literary fiction (Henry James, William Faulkner), controls closely the flow of knowledge sought by characters and reader—a technique that makes the reader a silent and invisible observer of both the psychological and physical realities of the characters. As Ben's interest in Tien goes beyond physical attraction toward emotional attachment, his need to know who Tien is and whether she has a place in his Vietnamese past rises like a crescendo drowning out his initial purpose for being there. Tien herself falls in love with him and fears that the knowledge he seeks might destroy what they have found in themselves.

Despite her fears, Tien journeys with Ben into the countryside near the sea to discover the fullness of their identities. In this endeavor they revive the myth of Vietnam's origins spelled out near the beginning of the novel: A dragon who ruled the oceans surfaced and flew to the land that would become Vietnam, where he met and fell in love with a fairy princess. After they married, she laid a hundred eggs from which came 50 princes and 50 princesses, but the dragon was not happy and returned to the sea with 50 children. The fairy went to the mountains with the remaining 50, and from them came the people of Vietnam. The lives of Ben and Tien mirror this myth in many ways, especially as male and female they come from the West and the East. Butler, knowing that knowledge not only comes from suffering but also begets suffering, makes the narrative turn on their journey.

If such a situation has the mark of drama, it should be mentioned that Butler was first drawn to the stage. In a Xavier Review interview in 1996, he spoke of how his “most impassioned writing” went into stage directions. In The Deep Green Sea he clearly reverses that inclination and creates a novel with the power of an ensemble, as characters speak and act in the round, though one yearns for more action. This novel, originally and suitably titled “Cleave,” a thematic continuation of Butler's novel They Whisper, explores the role of sexual intimacy in the lives of two people who must discover the world of their hearts and that of the changing stages about them.

Ron Charles (review date 6 January 2000)

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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 the NBC comedy Third Rock From the Sun with a philosophical linguist as the lead.

Mr. Spaceman is a mixture of sweet absurdity, social criticism, and theological speculation. The novel opens in the final hours of Desi's study of Earth. He's been given instructions to reveal himself at midnight at the end of the millennium. (Unlike us, extraterrestrials have figured out that the millennium ends next Dec. 31.)

Desi's patient voice is informed by a deep sense of compassion and a hundred years of careful attention to American advertising. “I am still learning,” he admits humbly. “My task is to submerge myself in this planet Earth.”

His last object of interest is a bus load of gamblers “crossing from the Great State of Texas to the Sportman's Paradise of Louisiana.” Nothing escapes him. Before beaming them aboard his spaceship, he notices “the hum of their tires on their Tax Dollars at Work, and the rice fields sliding invisibly past and smelling like Fabric-Safe Morning Rain.”

Of course, the dozen abductees are alarmed at first, even though Desi is wearing a smart-looking zoot suit. One terrified man wants to know if Desi is “a Reagan appointee.” But they’re quickly soothed by the Southern hospitality of his buxom wife, Edna Bradshaw, a middle-aged hairdresser from Bovary, Louisiana. Nothing breaks the ice like bright name tags and tasty hors d’oeuvres.

“Hi,” he says. “My name is Desi. I am a friendly guy. There is a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight. I Would Like to Teach the World to Sing. I Would Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

“But tonight we only have Presbyterian Punch,” his wife interrupts.

There's nothing like a spaceman's perspective to illuminate the comic aspects of our lives that have grown dim with familiarity.

Though many things about Earth fascinate Desi—Kroger's, cats, sausage balls—nothing is more impressive to him than words, “the mystery of these vanishing, fragile, powerful things that plague the dwellers in this world, things that rush from them and around them and into them and through them and out again constantly.”

During the past century. Desi has recorded thousands of conversations with earthlings in his struggle to understand our struggles. “I am moved to Reach Out and Touch Someone,” he says wistfully.

The most moving portions of the book are these monologues, haunting stories of loneliness or delight, romance or sexual abuse, success or racial violence. Desi demonstrates an infectious desire to know and appreciate all these ordinary people. In the sometimes heartbreaking clarity of their stories, they seem more remarkable than a man from outer space.

Religious allusions fly around this novel like Jedis around the Death Star. At the final dinner with his 12 guests, he finds it almost impossible to avoid the messianic role. “I have an Achy Breaky Heart,” he admits. One desperate young woman insists he must be more than he claims, but he shrugs off her questions by saying. “I am that I am.” When he finally catches the biblical references, he's even more terrified by the challenge that awaits him.

“There are many things about this world that are too wonderful for me to comprehend,” Desi admits. I had the same feeling reading this novel. Fortunately, we are not alone.

Kit Reed (review date 16 January 2000)

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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 movie The Day The Earth Stood Still—but with a difference.

When Michael Rennie stepped out of that flying saucer, he was handsome and dignified, elegant in silver. Butler's emissary is considerably less impressive. The genial Desi descends to Earth in a trench coat to hide his physical anomalies and pads along in size-20 athletic shoes. Instead of manifesting in metropolitan centers, he skims rural America, touching down in supermarket parking lots and outside schlocky discount stores, picking up ordinary citizens for scrutiny. He even marries one. “My wife Edna Bradshaw” keeps house and whips up trailer-trash delicacies for her husband's captives.

Desi, who first appeared in Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, is charming, clumsy and unprepossessing. Although he's spent the better part of the 20th century listening, he thinks in jargon, buzzwords and slogans yanked out of the ether of American culture. His greeting? “I am a friendly guy.” And he's just beamed up a bus full of people headed for a casino so he can absorb their memories and speech patterns while they are sleeping.

This is intransigent stuff for a serious novelist. With a narrator from outer space riding in on an old story, a writer with a literary reputation runs the risk of looking silly. The triumph is that Butler has brought his own lyric prose and quirky vision to a hoary premise and created a lovely and thoughtful tribute to the nature and power of the word. Mr. Spaceman is intelligent, funny and enormously likable.

Apparently the last survivor of his expedition, Desi has spent the century collecting people from every era of middle-American history, storing monologues to study as he figures out what, exactly, he's supposed to say to us. As he spins out the last days before the millennium, he replays their stories—American-made, down-home earthy, sometimes angry, sometimes passionate.

Words preoccupy him, words inform him, and in the end he is changed by the words he absorbs, stories of the monologuists he's captured, from the woman who envied the Wright Brothers to Lucky, the hip American Vietnamese, to the goofy, born-again hippie who convinces herself—and some of the folks from the waylaid bus—that Desi is the vessel for the Second Coming.

“And though I have no telepathy with my visitors,” he says,

after they have spoken, I have the power to recall their voices … to become the speakers. And I do this so that I might listen for the hidden music—a very difficult task, since the instrument of these voices is plucked only on the thin strings of words—but I listen very closely to the voices, straining to hear in them the song of the ethos, so I may know.

Desi needs to know, he tells us, to fulfill his mission. At the crack of the millennium,

I have been charged to find an appropriately public place and to make my vessel visible and then to descend from it in my true self and thus reveal to all the inhabitants of this planet this great and fundamental truth of the cosmos.

The truth? Desi isn’t sure. In a way, Butler's novel is a sober exploration of the possibilities. Not that he doesn’t have considerable fun along the way. Armed with recipes, down-to-earth Edna Bradshaw grounds Desi when he gets too meditative and reminds him of his hostly duties; and when his captives wake up, the scenes they play are masterpieces of comic timing.

Throughout, Butler keeps a neat balance between story and reflection, dropping Desi on Earth on a near-disastrous foray and then bringing him back to the ship just in time for Edna's Last Supper, at which expectations are overturned and Butler demonstrates that even old stories are fresh when the right person tells them.

Jonathan Levi (review date 23 January 2000)

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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 with her yellow cat, Eddie. One night, on her way back to her car in the parking lot of the local 24-hour Wal-Mart, she meets a spaceman.

“I am waiting for you, Edna,” he says, “because I study this planet and I hear you speak many words to your friends and to your subspecies companion and I detect some bright-colored aura around you and I want to meet you.” Being the kind of open and friendly woman that she is, it isn’t long before Edna has named the spaceman Desi (on account of his foreign accent) and not much longer before Desi takes her out for a cruise in his spaceship to “the spaceman's version of the dead-end road to the rock quarry, where I kissed my first boy.” The Edna of Tabloid Dreams, however, turned down Desi's bigger proposal. “I love you too, Desi. But I can’t leave the planet Earth. I can’t even leave Bovary.”

But four years and change later, Edna and Eddie have changed their minds and traded up to live with Desi aboard his spaceship. Butler the writer has made another kind of trade, handing the microphone to his lover from another planet. More than just a parking lot Lothario, Desi is an intelligent being who has spent 100 years studying the Earth. His mission is almost over. On New Year's Eve 2001 (by Butler's reckoning, the turn of the real Christian millennium) Desi will reveal himself to Earthlings.

In preparation, Desi has been collecting interviews with individuals: Edna, we learn, was hardly the first. But on December 30, 2000, Desi has yet to write his own speech. As a final bit of research, he decides to beam up a busload of 12 casino-bound travelers as they cross from Texas to Louisiana in search of luck. Edna, all Southern hospitality, has made up name tags and pecan balls to make the new arrivals feel at home. But Desi is anxious to interview his guests.

These interviews give Butler a chance to tell the kind of first-person narratives we’ve come to expect from him. There is Hank, the gay bus driver; Citrus, who pierces her body in an effort to both escape and embrace her Holy Roller Coaster of a past; and Hudson Smith, a black attorney whose father “believed in the Melting Pot. … You could go into the Pot as a beer-truck driver in Alexandria, Louisiana, which is what he was, and through your children, you could come out a Harvard lawyer.”

What Desi is searching for is a voice without yearning, a single happy human he can hold up in front of humankind. This yearning, as Desi sees it, is the human infection, an endless yearning expressed through an endless stream of words. “The atmosphere of this planet brims with words; they blow past me and I quake in the turbulence.” As streams of words go, this cupful ain’t too bad. Yet more often than not, this is not the way Desi speaks, and therein lies the canker that gnaws at Mr. Spaceman.

With all of the 20th century languages to choose from, Butler has handed Desi a Lite cocktail of words whose source is the cliches and jingles of a late-American Wal-Mart Unabridged Dictionary. “We can hear all your words,” Desi explains. “But through the machines they are very confusing. And so, What is a Guy to Do? That is why we need to be Oh So Much Closer and then we can Get to Know You Better.”

Perhaps Butler wants Desi to be an inarticulate innocent, in the manner, say, of Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncey Gardiner or Voltaire's Candide, or John's Jesus. Perhaps he wants this story of a latter-day Savior to act as a parable of sorts for latter-day Enquirers. One could imagine this type of design working brilliantly under the parti-colored imagination of Kurt Vonnegut. But Butler is no Kurt Vonnegut. In many ways his ear is more finely tuned to earthly timbres than Vonnegut's, as he has displayed so well both in Tabloid Dreams and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, his 15-story portrait of the legacy of the Vietnam War.

But Butler seems to want to squeeze two parables out of a single moonstone. On the one hand, Butler has Desi and his 12 worshipful casino-bound apostles eating a last supper of Edna's famous Chicken Wiggle before Desi's millennial descent to Earth. And on the other, Butler has an agenda that seems bent on communicating some particular message about the United States. His Earth, after all, is not very large. In all the years that Desi has spent collecting voices and specimens, he doesn’t once seem to have turned his attention beyond the USA.

We’ve certainly heard enough Second Coming jokes to last another millennium, and a Messiah with 16 fingers and 16 toes would get a comedian crucified in any club. But the problem with Mr. Spaceman is more than a lack of imagination. There is something fundamentally confusing about a parable that stretches toward universality while ignoring the part of the world that lacks a U.S. passport. One wonders whether Butler started slouching toward the mythic and, somewhere outside Damascus, Arkansas, got cold feet and tried to duck back into the convenience store he knows like the back of his five-fingered hand. It's hard to look to the stars through the lights of a Wal-Mart.

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 162

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 October 2001): 41.

The critic offers a generally positive assessment of Fair Warning.

Additional coverage of Butler's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 112; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 81; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Short Stories for Students, Vol. 11.

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Robert Olen Butler Long Fiction Analysis