Authors: Robert Olen Butler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Alleys of Eden, 1981

Sun Dogs, 1982

Countrymen of Bones, 1983

On Distant Ground, 1985

Wabash, 1987

The Deuce, 1989

They Whisper, 1994

The Deep Green Sea, 1997

Mr. Spaceman, 2000

Fair Warning, 2002

Short Fiction:

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, 1992

Tabloid Dreams, 1996


Robert Olen Butler, whose father was a college professor, graduated from Northwestern University summa cum laude in 1967 with a degree in oral interpretation, then in 1969 completed a masters in playwriting at the University of Iowa. Serving in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1972, Butler was trained to speak fluent Vietnamese. During his tour in Vietnam he was assigned to military intelligence, where he reached the rank of sergeant. He also served as an interpreter for U.S. advisers.{$I[AN]9810002035}{$I[A]Butler, Robert Olen}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Butler, Robert Olen}{$I[tim]1945;Butler, Robert Olen}

Robert Olen Butler

(Gray Little)

Butler’s early fiction grew out of his experience in Vietnam. Though he moved on to other themes, he later returned to Vietnam-related subject matter for his most acclaimed writing. As a writer on the Vietnam War, he does not look at the experience from the usual combatant’s point of view. Rather, he has tried to know about and to portray the Vietnamese themselves, a task aided by his ability to speak Vietnamese.

Returning from the war, Butler worked as an editor for Energy User News and wrote his early novels on a lapboard while commuting to and from his job. His early work is dominated by the “Vietnam trilogy,” novels in which a minor character in one shows up as a major character in another.

The Alleys of Eden is told from the perspective of an army deserter, Clifford Wilkes, who hides out for several years in Saigon in the apartment of a Vietnamese prostitute, Lanh, with whom he lives in an erotic haven. With the withdrawal of American forces, however, he must leave the country or be left to deal with the victorious North Vietnamese. He manages to get both himself and Lanh back to the United States, where they discover that their relationship has changed. Now she is the stranger, and the dislocation they both face drives them apart.

Set largely in Alaska, Sun Dogs seems very removed from the Vietnam experience, though the central character in the story, Wilson Hand, is obsessed by an experience he had in Vietnam when he was held captive by the Viet Cong. Although he is rescued by his commanding officer (who later appears as the central character in On Distant Ground), his feeling of powerlessness remains. The suicide of his former wife and his own involvement in the dark dealings of an oil company in Alaska again force him to confront his powerlessness.

In the last book of the trilogy, On Distant Ground, David Fleming, Wilson Hand’s commanding officer, is tried by court-martial for assisting the enemy. After his trial (he is found guilty but is not sent to prison), he arranges to return to Vietnam–in the last days before the fall of Saigon in 1975–to find the son he had left behind. Although the most positive novel of the trilogy, it is also the least convincing, as the plotting, motivation, and characterization are not up to the standards of the other works.

Breaking with the Vietnam subject matter, Butler published Countrymen of Bones, set during World War II at the Los Alamos project. Two men pursue the same woman; one man is a physicist in charge of developing a key system for the atomic bomb, and the other an archaeologist who is unearthing a burial site associated with an Indian death cult. The triangular conflict has thematic implications for a range of issues, some fairly worked out and some not. A strength of the novel is Butler’s depiction of the erotic impulses that underlie presumably rational behavior.

With Wabash, a story set in 1932 in a fictional steel mill city across the river from St. Louis, Butler turns again to historical fiction. In the novel Butler integrates the personal story of the marital breakup of a young couple with the larger social forces sweeping though the country during the Depression.

In The Deuce Butler returns to Vietnam subject matter and the theme of dual ancestry. Though rescued from Vietnam by his American father, Tony finds no happiness in an affluent life in New Jersey. Attempting to join a Vietnamese community in Montreal, he is robbed in New York City and then must survive on the streets. There he must come to terms with the world he lost and his new one in America.

Butler has won several literary prizes as well as Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships; his greatest critical recognition came for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1993. This collection of stories is a return to Vietnam subject matter, but it represents an innovation in writing about Vietnam. He deals with experiences not from his time spent in Vietnam during the war but from his knowledge of Vietnamese emigrants living around Lake Charles, Louisiana, the area where Butler started teaching creative writing at NcNeese State University in 1985.

They Whisper is based almost entirely on the narrator’s erotic relationships. Though the sexual explicitness is consistent with his earlier fiction, Butler here expands his erotic themes considerably. As in several other works, the central character is an American who served in Vietnam and who speaks fluent Vietnamese. In this case, however, the narrator focuses on his sexual experiences in Vietnam.

Returning to short fiction, Butler published Tabloid Dreams in 1996. The collection is structured around sensational, real headlines taken from tabloid newspapers; the stories have titles such as “Woman Loses Cookie Contest, Sets Self on Fire” and “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover.” Butler uses these absurdly surreal situations as the starting point for explorations of the interaction of the extraordinary and the ordinary in American life.

Mr. Spaceman furthers Butler’s foray into the weirder nooks of popular culture. Desi, a space alien, has been orbiting Earth for years, beaming up humans for study. Unlike the sinister aliens of much popular culture, however, he is a genial if uncomprehending alien happily married to Edna, one of his abductees. On December 30, 2000, Desi beams up a busload of casino-bound gamblers as he plans his own first public appearance on Earth, an appearance that his new followers believe will be a Second Coming. Butler deftly combines science fiction, New Testament exegesis, and deadpan humor to probe his ongoing interest in the stranger-in-a-strange-land theme.

Fair Warning marks yet another genre shift for Butler, this time into the realm of romance. His heroine, Amy Dickerson, is an auctioneer at a New York auction house who becomes involved with a mysterious Frenchman. The auction house setting provides the scene for an investigation of the urge for possession in all its forms.

BibliographyBeidler, Philip D. Re-writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991. Thought-provoking work places authors whose works concern the Vietnam War within their generation, providing readers with the appropriate context for understanding Vietnam fiction. A very good section on Butler places his novels within the genre and establishes and discusses the relationships among Butler’s The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, and On Distant Ground, which make up a trilogy about the Vietnam War.Butler, Robert Olen. “An Interview with Robert Olen Butler.” Interview by Michael Kelsay. Poets and Writers (January/February, 1996): 40-49. In a meaty interview, Butler discusses his life and work, addressing such topics as his distaste for being called a “Vietnam” novelist, the importance of the concrete world to the novelist, and how he came to write A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Includes some brief analyses of Butler’s themes.Diskin, Trayce. “From Tabloid to Truth: Using Tabloid Dreams to Inspire Powerful Fiction.” English Journal 89, no. 4 (2000): 58-65. Uses Butler’s novel as an example of connecting to emotional truths through seemingly sensational topics.Ewell, Barbara. “Tabloid Dreams.” America, May 17, 1997, 28-29. Argues that a main theme of Butler’s short-story collection Tabloid Dreams is the problem of determining what is fakery in the modern world. Links the strangeness of the stories in the collection to the strangeness that the Vietnamese characters in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain find in the United States.Herzog, Tobey C. “Conversation with Robert Olen Butler.” In Writing Vietnam, Writing Life: Caputo, Heinemann, O’Brien, Butler. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008. Discussion of Butler’s work and life is based on two interviews Herzog conducted with Butler in October, 2005. Focuses on how the Vietnam War affected Butler’s writing career.Jason, Philip K. “Vietnamese in America: Literary Representations.” Journal of Popular Culture 20, no. 3 (1997): 43-50. A study of Vietnam novels includes analysis of Deuce and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.Kelsay, Michael. “An Interview with Robert Olen Butler.” Poets and Writers 24, no. 3 (May/June, 1996): 40-49. In this interview, Butler talks about the six novels he published before winning the Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 book of short stories. He also discusses how his Vietnam experiences contributed to his writing.Packer, George. “From the Mekong to the Bayous.” The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1992. Examines Butler’s treatment of the Vietnamese in his stories, noting that for Butler, Vietnam was a place where Americans were improved and refined, learning to overcome their racism and cruelty. In contrast, Vietnamese Americans use their folklore to interpret their exile.Ryan, Maureen. “Robert Olen Butler’s Vietnam Veterans: Strangers in an Alien Home.” Midwest Quarterly 38, no. 3 (Spring, 1997): 274-295. Focuses on Butler’s early Vietnam novels–The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, and On Distant Ground–and argues that the shared experiences of the novels’ central characters make the works a trilogy. Also examines the theme of the difficulty of Vietnam veterans’ reassimilation into American life.Schulman, Candy. “My First Novel: Good News for Unpublished Novelists.” Writer’s Digest 63 (January, 1983). Describes the early publishing experiences of eight novelists, including Butler, noting their struggles to complete and publish their first books. Informative for its view of Butler at an early point in his career, before he had achieved recognition.
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