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Robert Olen Butler Jr Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Granite City, Illinois, 1945. Education: Northwestern University, B.S. 1967; University of Iowa, M.A. 1969; postgraduate study at the New School for Social Research, 1979-81. Military Service: Military intelligence, U.S. Army, 1969-72: served in Vietnam, became sergeant. Career: Reporter/editor, Electronic News, New York, 1972-73; high school teacher, Granite City, Illinois, 1973-74; reporter, Chicago, 1974-75; editor-in-chief, Energy User News, New York, 1975-85; assistant professor, McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana, 1985-93, professor of fiction writing, 1993—. Awards: TuDo Chinh Kien award for Outstanding Contributions to American Culture by a Vietnam Vet (Vietnam Veterans of America), 1987; Emily Clark Balch award, 1990; Pulitzer prize, 1993; Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation award (American Academy of Arts and Letters), 1993; Notable Book award (American Library Association), 1993; Guggenheim fellow, 1993; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1994. L.H.D., McNeese State University, 1994. Agent: Kim Witherspoon, Witherspoon and Chernoff.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Alleys of Eden. New York, Horizon Press, 1981.

Sun Dogs. New York, Horizon Press, 1982.

Countrymen of Bones. New York, Horizon Press, 1983.

On Distant Ground. New York, Knopf, 1985.

Wabash. New York, Holt, 1987.

The Deuce. New York, Holt, 1989.

They Whisper. New York, Holt, 1994.

The Deep Green Sea. New York, Holt, 1997.

Mr. Spaceman. New York, Grove Press, 2000.

Short Stories

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories. New York, VikingPenguin, 1992.

Tabloid Dreams. New York, Holt, 1996.

Coffee, Cigarettes and A Run in the Park. Decantur, Georgia, Wisteria Press, 1996.

Other

Introduction, Vietnam War Literature: A Catalog by Ken Lopez, Francine Ness, and Tom Congalton. Hadley, Massachusetts, K. Lopez, 1990.

Foreword, Fragments by Jack Fuller. Chicago, University of ChicagoPress, 1997.

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Critical Studies:

Conversations with American Novelists: The Best Interviews from the Missouri Review and the American Audio Prose Library, edited by Kay Bonetti, et al, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1997.

* * *

After writing six novels that received little attention, Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize with his 1992 collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. What captured the attention of the Pulitzer judges—and of Butler's rapidly growing audience—is that these short stories are all narrated in first person by Vietnamese characters—businessmen, housewives, war veterans, all immigrants to the United States. This is a remarkable and unique achievement when compared with the "Vietnam fiction" of other authors such as Tim O'Brien and Elizabeth Scarborough. Butler speaks for the Vietnamese themselves, rather than about Americans affected by the war.

Butler's father taught theater in Illinois, so he earned a B.A. and M.A. in playwriting during the 1960s, assuming he would become an actor or dramatist. But after graduating in 1969, he anticipated conscription into military duty in Vietnam. He signed up for a position in counterintelligence, reckoning he could stay Stateside. He spent a year learning to speak Vietnamese fluently and in 1971 lived in Bien Ha and Saigon.

Returning to the States, Butler married, divorced, worked at journals and newspapers, remarried, and realized his calling was in fiction, not drama. He began writing novels on the commuter train from Long Island to Manhattan. When he flew to southern Louisiana in 1985 to accept a position as creative writing instructor at McNeese State University, the view from the plane of the wetlands and rice paddies reminded him so much of Vietnam that he moved there at once, and was please to find a thriving community of Vietnamese expatriates.

Because of these events, much of Butler's fiction is concerned with the search for a new home (or a lost one), the sadness of families separated by war and death, relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.

In Butler's first book, The Alleys of Eden, Clifford Wilkes, an American deserter in Vietnam, shares with lovely Lanh a blissful, passionate affair. The night the Viet Cong surround Saigon, Cliff must decide whether to run for the airlift, whether to bring Lanh with him, or whether to die now rather than risk capture and torture at the hands of the communists. During this night, which comprises the first half of the book, Cliff relives scenes from his past involving separation and loss: the death of his father, the disaffection of his mother, the flight of his best friend to Canada, his divorce. Cliff determines not to abandon Lanh, and they escape Saigon together. However, they cannot restore their happiness in America. With a culture shock too great, the two lovers drift into loneliness toward a hopeless conclusion.

When Cliff recalls his stint as a general infantryman in Alleys, Butler depicts the event that led him to desert. Two of his compatriots in the army were Wilson Hand and Captain David Fleming, the former of whom had been a prisoner of the Viet Cong and the latter his daring rescuer. Their stories comprise the next two novels, Sun Dogs and On Distant Ground.

In Sun Dogs, Wilson works for Royal Petroleum, which sends him from its New York office to Alaska to investigate theft of information. Wilson detests the city, where he feels "dead and buried" in its "clutter." He yearns to stay in the Alaskan outback, with its purity of landscape and stark living conditions. However, like the "sun dogs" Wilson sees in the Alaskan sky—illusory suns formed by atmospheric ice crystals—two horrors dog him: the suicide of his ex-wife and the torture of imprisonment by the Viet Cong. Wilson has an affair with the beautiful, untrustworthy Marta, and becomes friends for life with Clyde, a loyal bush pilot. Butler peels away lies and red herrings, webs of deceit and murderous schemes, to reveal not merely a mystery about corporate greed and reserves of fuel, but an unexpected drama about the fuels that keep the body and spirit alive.

In On Distant Ground, David Fleming is court-martialed for having "aided the enemy." An emotionally aloof man, he had been strangely affected by spying a graffito on a South Vietnamese prison wall: "Hygiene is healthful." The irony and courage of these words speak to him as those written by a kindred soul. Finding the prisoner incarcerated there, a Viet Cong officer named Tuyen, whose name suggests "twin," became an obsession. When at last he tracked Tuyen to a penal colony, he hijacked a helicopter and freed the prisoner. Years later, he is still unable to articulate even to his wife why he did this, and the jury sentences him to a dishonorable discharge.

Even as David and his wife see their first son born, circumstantial evidence convinces David that he also had a son by a Vietnamese woman while serving there. Remembering his own unkind father, he determines to find the boy. With his wife's reluctant compliance, he returns to Vietnam—during the very week that the communists overrun Saigon. While dodging various enemies, he learns the fate of his lover and finds a boy who may be their son. His desperate attempt to get them both out of the country alive culminates in a startling re-encounter with Tuyen, who tells David a truth that forces all of his experiences into new perspective.

Countrymen of Bones chronicles the rivalry of an archaeologist, Darrell Reeves, and a military physicist, Lloyd Coulter, against the backdrop of New Mexico on the eve of the first detonation of an atomic weapon at Los Alamos. The subplots involve the Manhattan Project, run by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who provides the theme of the novel with his famous, awestruck, grieving remark: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds"; and a love affair between Reeves and Army private Anna Brown. Human failings such as opportunism and unrestrained anger become the shatterers of private worlds in this work.

At his new home in Louisiana, Butler drew upon autobiographical detail again for Wabash. Raised in Granite City, Illinois, Butler had as a teenager worked at a steel plant; his mother had lived there during the Depression years. This novel combines conflicts between the captains of profit (personified by the owner of the Wabash Steel foundry) and the budding communists, between Deborah Cole and her inarticulate, impotent husband Jeremy, and between Deborah's extended family of mother, aunts, and grandmother. As in so many of Butler's novels, the various conflicts parallel and play off each other in ingenious ways.

The Deuce marked a narrative breakthrough for Butler when he chose a first-person voice. The narrator is a teenager who seeks to understand his culture and identity as the son of a South Vietnamese bar girl and of a Vietnam vet who brings him to New Jersey. He used the technique again in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

The fifteen stories therein are told by a war-time translator; an ex-spy in South Vietnam who goes to grotesque, Roald Dahl-esque measures to keep his gorgeous wife sexually faithful; a mother speaking to her unborn child; by Catholics and Buddhists; by the wealthy and the desperate; and in the title story by a saddened, dying old man who hallucinates a visitation by Ho Chi Minh. Some of these stories are slight, with a single, poignant point to make about the human condition. Most work on many levels to gather such themes as love, envy, loneliness, sensuality, miscommunication, hatred, vengefulness, and spiritual redemption into tales about ghosts, reincarnation, and cultural assimilation.

A Good Scent thrust Butler into the international spotlight. Besides the Pulitzer, it earned the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Southern Review / Louisiana State University Prize for Short Fiction, a nomination for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Butler's earlier works were reissued, and he was commissioned by the Ixtlan film production company to write a screenplay for the collection. The literary world that had barely noticed Butler could now hardly get enough of him.

Butler next wrote a daring novel about sensuality and sexual relationships, They Whisper. The narrative technique is compelling and marvelous, consisting of a stream-of-consciousness recollection-cum-meditation by thirty-five-year-old Ira Holloway on the beauty and desirability of the women he has known, married, and lusted for. Imagining their thoughts and lives in his contemplation of and paean to the wonders of women, Ira seeks to solve the mystery of sexual yearning.

Two more collections followed: Tabloid Dreams, in which Butler takes inspiration from tabloid headlines, and Coffee, Cigarettes, and A Run in the Park, composed of three Vietnam stories. Butler's next foray into the stranger-in-a-strange-land mode came with Mr. Spaceman, superficially a science fiction novel. The stories of Desi, the humanoid extraterrestrial of the title, and of the twelve people who spend the last week of the twentieth century with him are explicitly modeled on the myths of the New Testament. Desi has been charged by his own race to reveal to humanity the existence of other sentient beings in the universe, and struggles with reluctance and fear when he is taken for the returning Messiah. Butler meditates upon language and its limitations, often to very funny effect, as Desi struggles in his precise and literal way to understand humans.

Butler has said in many interviews that he believes fiction can reveal human experience as universally understandable, that its power lies in connecting readers of all cultures through sensuality and emotion.

—Fiona Kelleghan

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