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Butler is a novelist for whom the Vietnam War was a defining experience, though unlike most Vietnam-oriented authors, he often tells his stories from a Vietnamese point-of-view. Butler’s works thus offer Americans a valuable means of understanding the Vietnamese perspective on American involvement in their country.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Theater Training
Butler was born January 20, 1945, in Granite City, Illinois, a small steel-mill town. An only child, he grew up, as did his parents, in Granite City, in the river bottoms across the Mississippi from Saint Louis and a few miles northwest of Cahokia State Park. His father, Robert Olen Sr., was a retired actor and once served as the chairman of the theater department at Saint Louis University. Speaking of their relationship, Butler said in a 1993 interview: ”It was second nature for us to talk late into the night about books, movies, and theater.”
Butler was the president of the study body at Granite City High School, and he graduated as class co-valedictorian in 1963. In the 1950s and 1960s, the local steel mills attracted economic exiles from depressed areas of the Midwest and the South, and this led to a collision of cultures that Butler said shaped his personality. During high school and into college, he worked summers at Granite City Steel. He learned to talk Saint Louis Cardinals baseball with coworkers at the blast furnace operation and to discuss aesthetic theory with his father’s colleagues.
He attended Northwestern University as a theater major, but shortly before graduating he decided he would ”rather write the words than mouth them.” Thus, after graduating summa cum laude from Northwestern with a bachelor of science degree in oral interpretation, Butler obtained his M.F.A. in playwriting from the University of Iowa in 1969. Butler married for the first of four times in 1968.
The Vietnam War
In the years following World War II, the country of Vietnam, which had for a time been ruled as a colony of France, became an independent nation partitioned into a region under Communist rule (North Vietnam) and a republic (South Vietnam). The two sides were to be united by free election but instead they began battling in a civil war to determine the political and ideological fate of the country. The United States supported the government of South Vietnam and sent nearly three million Americans to the region over the course of the war. During Butler’s college and graduate-school years, the Vietnam War was being expanded, and the Army was drafting eligible young men to fight. Butler suspected that after graduate school he would be drafted for military duty in Vietnam, so instead he visited the army recruiter in Granite City and enlisted. He com mitted to a three-year enlistment to be guaranteed a position in counterintelligence, thinking he would be placed in an American field office doing background checks on U.S. Army personnel applying for security clearances. Instead, he was shipped off to Vietnam after receiving language training.
He was first assigned to a counterintelligence unit. Within six months, he was chosen to be the administrative assistant and interpreter for the American Foreign Service officer advising the mayor of Saigon. In Vietnam, Butler was struck by the starkly different culture, language, and people, and this had a lasting effect upon him. Fluent in Vietnamese, Butler noted the nuances of Vietnamese language and later recreated these subtleties in his writing, making his characters real and multi-dimensional. Butler left Vietnam in December 1971 and the Army one month later.
Struggling After Vietnam
Shortly after returning home, Butler divorced his first wife and moved to New York City to became a reporter for Electronic News. Shortly thereafter, he married for a second time. Although he advanced to editor of the journal, he and his second wife decided in mid-1973 to move to Granite City, where he worked as a high-school substitute teacher and free lance writer for a year. Following the birth of a son, Joshua, he rejoined Electronic News in Chicago, and after eighteen months, the owner of the paper asked him to return to New York to start a newspaper of his own creating. From 1975 until 1985 he was editor in chief of Energy User News, a weekly investigative business newspaper targeted for industrial and commercial consumers and managers of energy.
Butler struggled in the 1970s to think of himself as a writer. He explained to Peter Applebome of The New York Times that his early novels were completed ”in longhand on legal pads supported by a Masonite lap-board as he commuted on the Long Island Rail Road from his home in Sea Cliff, L.I., to his job in Manhattan.” Beginning in 1979 he attended four consecutive semesters of advanced creative-writing courses at the New School for Social Research, and he began working on his first novel, The Alleys of Eden.
Vietnam was not a popular subject when Butler started shopping around the manuscript for The Alleys of Eden. The book was turned away by a dozen publishers who ”admitted every virtue in the book except its marketability,” he said. London-based publisher Methuen finally selected the novel for the company’s American trade list; however, two months before the novel was published, Methuen notified Butler that it was forgoing the trade-book business. Butler forwarded the manuscript to nine additional publishers before Ben Raeburn, editor of Horizon Press, accepted it in 1980. During the next five years, he wrote three more novels, two of which formed a loose Vietnam trilogy with The Alleys of Eden.
A Successful Writer and Teacher
With the success of his fourth novel, On Distant Ground (1985), the third installment of Butler’s Vietnam trilogy, his publishing credentials allowed him to change careers. In the summer of 1985, he left Energy User News and accepted a position teaching creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He has since published six more novels and four collections of short stories, including A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), the collection that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1993. He has also taught creative writing at several universities around the United States, and he is the judge of an annual short-fiction award, the Robert Olen Butler Prize.
Works in Literary Context
Butler is a thematically diverse writer, though two of his defining themes are the suffering that results from thwarted desire and the intimacy that characterizes fundamental human relationships. Although most of his novels and many of his stories are somehow related to the Vietnam War or Vietnamese immigrants in the United States, he does not confine his settings or themes exclusively to Vietnam. Butler’s short-story collections share few common characteristics: their themes are completely different in each volume; their characters rarely remind the reader of ones in his other collections; their literary techniques are peculiar to each volume; and their tonal range runs the gamut from existential dread to hilarious—even irreverent—parody. To state precisely what Butler’s recurring subject matter and themes are is difficult; defining Butlerian ”character types” is even more difficult.
A Unique Perspective on Vietnam
Although one of many Vietnam War authors, Butler is the only major American author who writes about the effects of the war on the Vietnamese people rather than about the American soldier’s wartime experience in Vietnam. Many of his protagonists are Vietnamese, and Butler is able to repro duce their intonations and thought patterns with great accuracy. Butler, therefore, presents Americans with a valuable means of understanding the Vietnamese perspective on the presence of the American military force in Vietnam and the challenge of resettlement to the United States.
What characterizes Butler’s stories most consistently is his ability to tailor his stylistic procedures to the subject matter, but what distinguishes Butler’s fiction is his ability to employ a seemingly endless variety of voices. As Richard Eder put it in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, one of Butler’s ”main strengths, is his ability to speak in his characters’ voices—an almost perfect English but with odd strains and inflections.”
Butler invents his characters by giving them unusual voices rather than through the use of physical description or habitual actions. One of the things that makes Butler an acute listener and observer is his deep knowledge of the Vietnamese language; to be understood properly, the Vietnamese language depends to a great extent on subtle tonal modulations. Butler makes use of this subtlety to produce highly realistic and compelling voices for his varied characters.
Works in Critical Context
Critical reaction to Butler’s works has been generally positive. Besides earning praise for his portrayals of foreign peoples, Butler has been noted for his sensual set-tings, realistic action, and superb command of characters’ voices.
The Vietnam Trilogy
Butler has been tagged a Vietnam novelist even though he finds the label disparaging. He told Jon Anderson of the Chicago Tribune: ”It’s like saying Monet was a lily-pad painter; artists get at deeper truths.” However, three of his first four books loosely form a Vietnam trilogy, and critics have treated them as such.
Butler’s Vietnam novels were critically acclaimed from the outset because, for the first time, the Vietnamese were portrayed with complexity. Many reviewers were as impressed with Butler’s style as with his perspective. ”It is incredibly exciting to read Butler,” stated a Fort Worth Star-Telegram review, for Butler shows himself ”to be a master stylist. He moves from the most feverish of prose to a flatness and sparseness that is reminiscent of the best of Chandler and Hammett.” Tom Clark wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ”Butler has an ability to catch tiny shifts of feeling, momentary estrangements, sudden dislocations of mood—a tool as valuable to the novelist as a scalpel to the surgeon.”
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), Butler continued to narrate from the Vietnamese perspective, concentrating in this collection of fifteen stories on those who had resettled in America. Madison Smartt Bell of the Chicago Tribune regards the collection as a ”novelistic unit” that maps ”a Vietnamese legend onto an American situation,” and he believes that ”any reader of this book will feel a strange and perhaps salutary sense of exposure and be made to wonder just who are the real Americans.” Richard Eber says about Butler’s subject matter and style that he ”writes essentially, and in a bewitching translation of voice and sympathy, about 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.”
Although some critics thought A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain to be too melodramatic, they have widely praised the accuracy with which Butler portrayed Vietnamese Americans. Prior to Butler, many Americans viewed the Vietnamese as either sinister or inscrutable or both, but, as George Packer noted in his New York Times Book Review article, ”A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain goes a long way toward making the Vietnamese real.” Critics were also impressed with the universal themes that emerged from these stories. As Pat C. Hoy wrote,
Inside the stories, inside the lives Butler creates, we experience loss and need. We learn about the suffering that comes from desire, and just for an instant we look into things so deep we can’t deny them.
- Beidler, Philip D. Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991.
- Bonnetti, Kay, ed. ”Robert Olen Butler.” In Conversations with American Novelists. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1997).
- Cash, Erin E. Campbell. ”Locating Community in Contemporary Southern Fiction: A Cultural Analysis of Robert Olen Butler’s ‘A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.”’ In Disheroon, Suzanne, ed. Songs of the New South: Writing Contemporary Louisiana. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
- Nagel, James. ”Vietnam Redux: Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” In The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
- Orlofsky, Michael. ”Historiografiction: The Fictionalization of History in the Short Story.” In Iftekharrudin, Farhat, ed. The Postmodern Short Story: Forms and Issues. Westport, Conn.: Praeger,2003.
- Sartisky, Michael ”Robert Olen Butler: A Pulitzer Profile.” In Humphries, Jefferson, ed. The Future of Southern Letters. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Bonetti, Kay. ”An Interview with Robert Olen Butler.” Missouri Review (1994): 85-106.
- Eder, Richard. ”Seeing the Vietnamese.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (March 29, 1992): 3, 7.
- Hoy, Pat C. ”Suffering and Desire.” The Sewanee Review (Fall 1992): 116-18.
- Packer, George. ”A Review of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” The New York Times Book Review (June 7, 1992): 24.
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