Robert Olen Butler's Vietnam.
Written by Steve Sanford, former SDHC board member
Robert Olen Butler’s military service in Vietnam informs much of his most recognized writing. He was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, his collection of short stories centered on the lives of transplanted Vietnamese in Louisiana.
His new novel Perfume River is another good scent, for sure.
In February 1968, at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, a fierce battle was waged over Hue City, on the Huong River in South Vietnam near the DMZ.
Both the United States and South Vietnamese forces were ill-prepared for the attack. The fighting was not to defend or save Hue; the city was essentially leveled and thousands of its innocent residents were slaughtered. Instead, the battle for which the U.S. claimed victory was fought to save the strategic position the city represented.
Today, the Huong River is best known as the Perfume River and is a strategic tourist attraction in Vietnam. The river earned the “perfume” moniker for the fragrance created by lush vegetation and flowers found along a portion of its course to the South China Sea.
This bit of historical geography is, decades later, more present than history and nearer than mere geography for Robert Quinlan, the central character in Butler’s Perfume River. The college professor has a good life, a scholar wife, and grown children leading their own good lives. The present has not quite out-distanced Tet and Hue, nor the schism his military enlistment brought to Robert’s ‘60s era family – dominated by a severe, mostly silent WWII veteran father – and particularly to Robert’s brother who took a different course to Canada.
Decades of silence and separation precede Robert’s chance encounter with Bob, a vagrant Robert mistakes for a Vietnam veteran.
The first sentence of the novel lays the path: “What are Robert Quinlan and his wife feebly arguing about when the homeless man slips quietly in?”
As emerges, Robert’s factual error belies the intuitive connection between them, the unnamed scar material that joins two sides of a wound, much in the same sense as Bob is just another name for Robert. As the sentence also introduces, Robert’s long marriage is marred by a separation inherent in his secrets.
Within the struggles of a fractured family, Butler presents the personal human cost of war, separate from the places of immediate death. He portrays this cost as a shingles-like virus that creeps to life in the strongest, the wisest, the most creative and the most fortunate, to be a rash of psyche both itching and painful, whose emergence is unpreventable.
Vietnam is the centerpiece war to represent all wars’ pox that seeds a common, waiting virus.
Butler migrates among the internal dialogues and circumstances of the several central characters, a technique that sharpens the sense of their isolation from one another and its common source.
In the dying veteran father, we are led to an understanding which is denied to those whose lives play out as we watch and are unable to shake their shoulders or whisper revelations to them. They struggle with the short family reunion the death brings, in scenes we recognize, yet they come to find some sense of each other that has been missing in the decades. However, Bob’s recurring presence specially carries the haunt of dark cause and effect.
While Robert deals with the last days of the veteran father, the scholar wife Darla is drawn in her vocation to contemplate the wives and daughters of the failed Confederacy, whose words are etched in a particular monument to their men by a turn-of-the century women’s society (note: Jefferson County Confederate Memorial).
Her determination to imagine the dead as alive might signal a measure of her distance from the living struggles of Robert and his family. She can be scholarly because she was never present in her objects’ dignified despair. To stop there, however, is to miss much.
After contemplating the ‘Confederate’ women’s dignified helplessness and subservience, who are reduced to finding words of honor to memorialize what they could not prevent or understand, Darla is confronted with Robert’s mother’s utter frustration. Finally, after decades of suffering at the hands of stubborn men, in failing to retrieve her son lost to her in Canada or in bringing her husband to face his lamentable sins, Peggy confesses, “I am so sick and tired of the men in this family.”
Darla represents us well in placing this and Peggy’s ongoing suffering of honorable men in the context of troubled American history. Maybe we are where they were and not much has changed?
As with all best works of fiction, this novel tells truths that only characters we care about can speak to us from the circumstances we are brought convincingly to believe compel the progress of their lives.
Here, though, there are no preachy asides where a character turns to an audience. Butler is never visible despite the close parallels to his personal biography. He is wisely spare in scenes, dialogue and most interior visions, so the lessons remain in the scenes and with the characters. That does not mean, however, that they are elusive.
With his father in the last days, in the course of revelatory bursts of the veteran about political and religious wars, Robert is brought to this:
And his fuller belief hurtles through him, that the very waging of a righteous war, even the winning of that war, can trigger the dark gene. So the winners go on to fight unrighteous wars. And maybe that’s the real gene that causes all the trouble. The one encoded for righteousness. Politics and religion and just the pure waging and winning of wars all share that.
Butler does not put a frame around this or make it a church message board. The scene moves on without pause, tense unrelenting toward what could have been the moment when father and son reveal their secrets and discover they are the same, but instead becomes the moment when they lose each other in the father’s pronouncement of disdain for his son’s failure to encounter death. It may be the book’s most powerful and defining scene.
Though Butler does not pause to let righteous thought ruminate, we can. The book’s release so near the horrors and angry divisive rhetoric of late – surely with more to come – seems almost prophetic. Butler’s characters don’t speak to us as a chorus in the pages.
Still, it is easily imagined that after the novel’s last page, they rise together, join hands and say to us in one voice “Seek understanding before righteousness.”
Robert Olen Butler grew up on the Illinois side of suburban St. Louis. He was born into a theater family and educated at Northwestern University and the University of Iowa in theater and playwriting.
He served as a linguist for American intelligence in Saigon during the Vietnam War and was fluent in the Vietnamese language. He is the author of more than a dozen novels and six collections of short stories.
In the course of his career as a writer, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In addition to the Pulitzer, Butler has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and has received two National Magazine Awards for his short stories. Today, he holds the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Butler has been repeatedly candid in recounting the struggles and admitted failures in his early years as a fiction writer. Those experiences and his evolving from them brought Butler to very definite views about the value of literary fiction and the creative writing process.
A work of literary fiction, Butler asserts, ultimately allows the reader to leave one’s self and enter into another in a way we don’t in any other experience. As art, it “has always responded to the deepest travails of the human spirit.”
He describes the act of creation as not coming from the mind, but instead “from the space where we dream.” In that space he follows the yearnings of characters that suggest the deepest level of desire, hoping to understand them in ways that people tend not to understand each other.
“It is the dynamics of desire that make stories go,” Butler reminds us. And Perfume River certainly does so go.