Butler, Robert Olen 1945–

views updated

Butler, Robert Olen 1945–

(Robert Olen Butler, Jr.)

PERSONAL: Born January 20, 1945, in Granite City, IL; son of Robert Olen (a college professor) and Lucille Frances (an executive secretary; maiden name, Hall) Butler; married Carol Supplee, 1968 (divorced, 1972); married Marilyn Geller (a poet), July 1, 1972 (divorced, 1987); married Maureen Donlan, August 7, 1987 (divorced, 1995); married Elizabeth Dewberry, April 23, 1995; children (second marriage): Joshua Robert. Education: Northwestern University, B.S. (summa cum laude; oral interpretation), 1967; University of Iowa, M.A. (playwriting), 1969; postgraduate study at New School for Social Research (now New School University), 1979–81. Politics: Independent. Religion: Roman Catholic.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, 411—Williams Building, Florida State University, P.O. 1580, Tallahassee, FL 32306-1580.

CAREER: Electronic News, New York, NY, editor/reporter, 1972–73; high school teacher in Granite City, IL, 1973–74; Chicago, IL, reporter, 1974–75; Energy User News, New York, NY, editor-in-chief, 1975–85; McNeese State University, Lake Charles, LA, assistant professor, 1985–93, professor of fiction writing, beginning 1993, then Francis Eppes Professor; Florida State University, Tallahassee, Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing. Member of faculty at various writers' conferences, 1988–. Military service: U.S. Army, Military Intelligence, 1969–72; served in Vietnam; became sergeant.


AWARDS, HONORS: TuDo Chinh Kien Award for Outstanding Contributions to American Culture by a Vietnam Vet, Vietnam Veterans of America, 1987; Emily Clark Balch Award for Best Work of Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1991; Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, PEN/Faulkner Award nominee, and Notable Book Award, American Library Association, all 1993, all for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain; Guggenheim fellow, 1993; L.H.D., McNeese State University, 1994; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1994; Lotos Club Award of Merit, 1996; National Magazine Award for Fiction, 2001.



The Alleys of Eden, Horizon Press, 1981.

Sun Dogs, Horizon Press, 1982.

Countrymen of Bones, Horizon Press, 1983.

On Distant Ground, Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.

Wabash, Holt (New York, NY), 1987.

The Deuce, Holt (New York, NY), 1989.

They Whisper, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.

The Deep Green Sea, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Mr. Spaceman, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Fair Warning, Atlantic Monthly Press (Boston, MA), 2002.


A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.

Tabloid Dreams, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.

Had a Good Time, Grove Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Butler's stories have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, GQ, Harper's, Hudson Review, New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Sewanee Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Zoetrope.


Also author of feature-length screenplays and teleplays for Disney, New Regency, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures Warner Brothers, and Home Box Office.

SIDELIGHTS: Robert Olen Butler is an American writer whose novels and short stories, many of which deal with the legacy of the Vietnam War, have earned the author wide critical acclaim. Butler's first published novel, The Alleys of Eden, is the story of an American Army deserter, Cliff, who falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute, Lanh, and lives with her for four years in the back alleys of Saigon. When Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese in 1975, they manage to escape to the United States, where the contrasts between the American and Vietnamese cultures, as personified by Cliff and Lanh, are brought into focus.

New York Times critic Anatole Broyard praised The Alleys of Eden, writing that "Butler seems to have studied and learned from the best masters: his time shifts are reminiscent of Ford Madox Ford." Tom Clark, reviewing in the Los Angeles Times, thought: "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." And John Grant, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, noted that "This excellent novel should be placed alongside such greats as Graham Greene's The Quiet American."

Although set against the background of Vietnam, The Alleys of Eden is not primarily a combat novel. The book was described by Marc Leepson in the Washington Post Book World as "a unique, haunting story that ultimately serves as a metaphor for the pain and suffering caused by this country's participation in the Vietnam war." Butler's knowledge of Vietnamese culture results from a tour of duty in which he served as a U.S. Army intelligence agent and later, in 1971, as an interpreter for the U.S. advisor to the mayor of Saigon.

The Alleys of Eden, which was written on a lapboard during Butler's daily commutes to work on a train, was rejected twenty-one times before Butler was able to find a publisher who believed it had marketability. One publisher, Methuen, had brought the book as far as the galley stage before getting out of trade-book publishing and canceling its pending list. The book's eventual publication by Horizon Press was greeted by favorable reviews and nominations for respected book awards, including consideration for a Pulitzer Prize.

Sun Dogs, Butler's second novel, centers on the attempts of Wilson Hand, a former prisoner of war turned private investigator, to come to grips with his Vietnam experience and his ex-wife's suicide. Hand, a secondary character in The Alleys of Eden, travels to Alaska in search of corporate spies. "It is incredibly exciting to read Butler," reflected Ronald Reed in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram review. "Butler is showing 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 [Raymond] Chandler and [Dashiell] Hammett. And most importantly, he has something to say."

Butler's novel Countrymen of Bones "examines the metaphors men find to justify their violence," synopsized New York Times critic Broyard. Countrymen of Bones relates the efforts of an archaeologist to work an important burial site he has discovered in the New Mexico desert near the end of World War II. The archaeologist is informed by the military and by scientists at Los Alamos that he only has several weeks to complete his work before the site will be destroyed by the testing of the first atomic bomb. "Though Countrymen of Bones is a brilliant novel of ideas," added Broyard, "it is never pretentious or didactic … The characters embody and enact—even dance—the author's ideas."

On Distant Ground, published in 1985, concerns an American intelligence officer dealing with the complex moral terrain of the Vietnam War. Captain David Flem-ing lives by rigid codes and ideals in order to carry out the work of getting information from the enemy. He seems almost an automaton, but one day a prisoner's scrawled graffiti—"hygiene is healthful," written on the wall of the filthy prison—reaches him. Fleming perceives the writer to be a decent and commendable person, and he becomes obsessed with finding and releasing the prisoner, which he eventually does. Taken back to the United States, he is court-martialed. During the proceedings, he realizes that he must have left behind an unborn son in Vietnam. He flees the United States under an assumed name and finds his former lover and his son just a few days before the fall of Saigon.

Butler's fifth novel, Wabash, represented a departure for the author, as he turned his attention from the Vietnam War to Depression-era Illinois. Protagonists Jeremy and Deborah Cole struggle to reclaim their marriage in the aftermath of their daughter's death. While attempting to deal with the loss of their child and, seemingly, their love for each other, the Coles engage 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. Reviewers of the novel were mixed in their appraisal of the work, often commending Butler's distinctive prose but calling the plot and character development uneven. Writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, Michael Dorris termed the novel "powerful and disturbingly flawed," taking issue in particular with "thin character motivation and a penchant for overblown profundity." A Publishers Weekly critic felt that Wabash is "beautifully written." Conversely, a Kirkus Reviews contributor characterized the plot as "schematic" and "cardboard." While admitting the story's flaws, Dorris concluded that Wabash "is a good read, an absorbing, gritty book about people and communities down on their luck."

In his 1989 novel, The Deuce, Butler returns to his focus on 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 his life's meaning and direction, Tony has to avoid the clutches of a murderous pederast who is stalking him. As with Butler's previous novels, reviewers called the work ambitious yet flawed. New York Times Book Review contributor Scott Spencer, for instance, averred that The Deuce is "tensely dramatic." Admitting that Butler sometimes fails in his effort to relate the story from a teenager's viewpoint, Spencer nevertheless remarked that "at its most lucid, the novel speaks directly to us in a voice that is marvelously convincing." James Park Sloan, writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, felt that Butler falls short in this regard, "in the process exposing the many pitfalls of a child-narrator and the extraordinary difficulty of writing from within a culture other than one's own." Nevertheless, Sloan commented that the novel "is an intriguing and ambitious piece of work." Concluded Spencer, Butler "has crafted a work of fiction with real narrative energy and cultural sweep."

After producing six well-received but small-selling novels, Butler managed to enter the arena of front-list writers with his 1992 story collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Set in southern Louisiana, where Butler had moved after he finished The Deuce, the fifteen stories in Good Scent feature Vietnamese-American characters adjusting to life in America and dealing with their war-ravaged past. In "Love," a nerdish man who spied for the Americans during the war has to deal for the first time with competition for his beautiful wife. During the war, he was able to vanquish all such competitors by turning them in as Viet Cong sympathizers; now in America, he has no such method at his disposal and so resorts to an outlandish voodoo spell to conquer his opponent for his wife's affections. The title story, called "a brilliantly told story that I will not soon forget" by New York Review of Books contributor Robert Towers, portrays an old Vietnamese man on the verge of death who finds that he is being visited by the ghost of Ho Chi Minh. While passing the time with Ho, the old man realizes that his son-in-law and grandson have helped murder a Vietnamese journalist in New Orleans who was calling for acceptance of their former homeland's Communist government. Echoing Towers in his praise for this story, Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Richard Eder remarked, "In a collection so delicate and so strong, the title story stands out as close to magical."

They Whisper, Butler's 1994 novel, recounts the narrator's lifelong passion for women. Ira Holloway, the thirty-five-year-old protagonist, describes his numerous sexual liaisons and his never-ending wonder at the joys of the female body. He also relates his current, dysfunctional marriage to a religion-obsessed woman who demands daily sex to counteract her intense jealousy of other women. Ira's marriage finally unravels when Ira falls in love with another woman. "They Whisper conveys my deepest feeling about sexuality, the relationships of men and women, the nature of intimacy—in the sense of secular sacrament. The writing was an act of self-exploration as well as expression," Butler told Sybil S. Steinberg in a Publishers Weekly interview.

Reviewers offered differing opinions about They Whisper. Commenting in the Chicago Tribune Books, Julia Glass praised Butler for once "again tackl[ing] the vagaries of language itself" but criticized the author's treatment of the women in the book: "few of the women we meet seem psychologically distinct, and their soliloquies are mostly indistinguishable in tone from Ira's own voice." While expressing her ambivalence about the novel's ultimate power, Jane Smiley, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the novel "complex and intriguing,… many-faceted and fascinating." Washington Post Book World contributor Josephine Hart likewise termed They Whisper "profound, disturbing and important." While critical of some elements of the novel, Glass concluded that the work is "daring" and an important step "in the ongoing career of a brilliant writer."

Butler followed Good Scent with a collection of humorous stories, Tabloid Dreams, in which he uses sensationalistic newspaper headlines as jumping-off points for stories about ordinary people. In stories such as "Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband," Butler draws upon both high and low culture to explore issues of cultural exile, loss, hope, and the search for one's self in a consumerist culture. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Mallon compared Butler's sensibility to Flannery O'Connor's and noted, "To call this volume … a tour de force would be to reduce something deeply accomplished to a stunt."

In The Deep Green Sea, Butler tells of the love story between Tien, a multi-racial Vietnamese woman, and Ben, a forty-eight-year-old Vietnam veteran who returns to Vietnam seeking closure. Though Tien is young enough to be Ben's daughter, the two are immediately drawn to one another. The story is told in alternating "he said/she said" chapters, and encompasses the histories of their respective nations as well as their personal histories. Dwight Gardner, in the New York Times Book Review, observed that Butler is perhaps "America's most olfactorily minded novelist … he'd rather tell you how a character smells than tell you the color of his eyes." Though admitting that The Deep Green Sea falls short of its goal, a Kirkus Reviews critic nevertheless finds it "an ambitious, lyrical exploration of the lingering wounds of the Vietnamese war."

The short stories in Had a Good Time are based on Butler's collection of vintage postcards from the early decades of the twentieth century. Butler finds the voice of the message on the postcard as interesting as the picture and uses that voice to create the first-person narrative. A Publishers Weekly contributor notes that the "stories range in tone and substance, from the humor of 'The Ironworkers' Hayride,' in which a man lusts for a sassy suffragette despite her wooden leg ('her mouth is a sweet painted butterfly'), to the melancholy of 'Carl and I,' about a woman who pines for her consumptive husband ('I breathe myself into my husband's life')." According to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, "death haunts every tale…. Yet there's delightful humor in stories like … 'I Got Married to Milk Can,' about a new bride renouncing her romantic dreams of running off with an artist when he proves to be an 'advanced' painter of the Ash Can school."

Butler once explained of his writing: "I write novels to explore for myself—and to reveal to others—my vision of the fundamental patterns inherent in the flux of experience. These patterns concern man's search for love, kinship, connection, God; man's capacity for desertion, violence, and self-betrayal. But I also write novels to tell stories, a primal human impulse since cave-mouth campfires. I believe that art, to be fully realized, must communicate with as wide a public as possible without losing sight of its deepest truths."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 81, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

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

Trucks, Rob, The Pleasure of Influence: Conversations with Eleven Contemporary American Male Fiction Writers, NotaBell Books, 2002.


America, May 17, 1997, pp. 8-29.

Antioch Review, spring, 1997, p. 272.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 14, 1982.

Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1987, p. 74; November 1, 1997; June 1, 2004.

Library Journal, September 1, 1996, p. 212.

London Review of Books, May 12, 1994, p. 24.

Los Angeles Times, February 11, 1982.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 29, 1992, p. 3.

Nation, February 27, 1982.

Newsday, March 21, 1982.

New York Review of Books, August 12, 1993, p. 41.

New York Times, November 11, 1981; October 18, 1983; November 3, 1996; January 11, 1998.

New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1983; April 21, 1985; March 15, 1987, p. 16; September 3, 1989, p. 10; February 13, 1994, p. 12.

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 1982.

Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1982; February 11, 1983; December 21, 1984, p. 82; January 16, 1987, p. 62; July 7, 1989, p. 51; January 3, 1994, p. 60; April 12, 2004, p. 34.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 1, 1981.

Times Literary Supplement, December 10, 1993, p. 19; March 18, 1994, p. 14.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 8, 1987, p. 1; September 24, 1989, p. 7; February 6, 1994, p. 3.

Vogue, February, 1994, p. 122.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1985, p. 318.

Washington Post Book World, April 21, 1985, p. 11; October 1, 1989, p. 6; January 16, 1994, p. 1.

Whole Earth Review, spring, 1994, p. 56.

Writer, April, 1982.

Writer's Digest, January, 1983.


Inside Creative Writing, http://www.fsu.edu/∼butler/ (May 9, 2005).

Writers on America, http://usinfo.state.gov/products/pubs/ (August 3, 2004), Robert Olen Butler, A Postcard from America.

About this article

Butler, Robert Olen 1945–

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article