Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle
Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle
Robert Olen Butler
"Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle" was published in Robert Olen Butler's 1996 short story collection Tabloid Dreams. As the title of the book indicates, the basic premise of the stories in this collection is the lurid exaggerations found in the headlines of newspapers such as the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News. Rather than simply sticking with the humor implied by the outlandish titles of the stories, however, Butler develops the humanity implied within each piece, exploring what the situations mean to the characters who find themselves in such bizarre circumstances.
This story consists of a monologue by a survivor of the Titanic disaster. She has no memory of the time that has passed from the sinking of the ship in 1912 to the time that a rescue helicopter arrived to save the lifeboat she floated in, sometime in the mid-1990s. In her time (the first decade of the twentieth century), she was active in the feminist movement, wary of men and acutely conscious of the inequalities that marked the American society she knew firsthand. Excited about the signs of social progress in the modern world that she sees on the television in her hotel room, she is also worried about what this means for her future: with the cause settled to which she once devoted her life, she cannot imagine that there is any joy left for her, a stranger in a strange land.
Though the title "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle" implies a farcical comedy, Butler is dead serious about this woman's plight, examining her situation with the same measured care that readers expect of thoughtful works of literature.
Robert Olen Butler was born in Granite City, Illinois, on January 20, 1945. His father was a college professor and his mother was an executive secretary. He graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1967, with a degree in oral interpretation. The following year he married Carol Supplee, a marriage that was to last only four years. He attended the University of Iowa for postgraduate work, receiving a master of arts in playwriting in 1969. From 1969 to 1972, he served in Vietnam as an Army Intelligence officer and later as a translator for the U.S. advisor to the mayor of Saigon. His fiction, especially in his early novels, reflects his experience during the height of the Vietnam war.
After returning to the United States in 1972, Butler served as a reporter and editor for the New York Times and then returned to teach at the high school in his home town for a short while. He married again in 1972, to the poet Marilyn Geller; they divorced in 1987. From 1975 to 1985 he was an editor-in-chief for the Energy User's News in New York City. Butler took a position as associate professor at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, moving into a full professorship in fiction writing in 1993. As of 2005, Butler was teaching at Florida State University; in the same year, he won the National Magazine Award for Fiction.
Butler's first novel, The Alleys of Eden, was published in 1981, after having been rejected by twenty-one publishers. When it was finally brought out, it was praised by critics and became a Pulitzer Prize contender. The next year, his second novel, Sun Dogs, was published. In all, he published six novels between 1981 and 1992. Butler's 1987 marriage to Maureen Dolan ended in 1995, when he married Elizabeth Dewberry. His short story collection in 1992, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1993 and was a nominee for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He published two more novels after that and, in 1996, another collection of stories, Tabloid Dreams, which includes "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle." He also published another collection of stories based on a central concept: the stories in Had a Good Time are all based on antique postcards that Butler collected. In 2005, Butler wrote a how-to book: From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.
Robert Olen Butler does not establish a setting at the start of "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle"; nor does he establish who is talking. Instead, he starts the story with the narrator, whose name will much later be given as Margaret, telling her story, leaving the situation for the reader to piece together. From the title of the story, readers can accurately suppose that she is one of the survivors of the wreck of the Titanic, on the night of April 14, 1912. This assumption is supported by her reference, in the first sentence, to the coldness of the North Atlantic, the location where the Titanic sank, and references soon after to a lifeboat and the ship's smokestacks. She is recalling that night, and her life leading up to it.
While describing the chaotic scene of the ship going down, Margaret describes having been in London just days earlier, with a group of women who were marching in protest for women's right to vote and whose demonstration was being ignored by men. She feels similarly ignored as the ship is sinking, as her immediate understanding of the situation is ignored by all but one of the men she encounters. She traveled to London to attend a convention on suffrage and is proud of herself for having traveled alone, which was highly irregular for women in 1912.
In the present, Margaret finds her modern hotel room strange, but she has come to understand and accept it. She is conscious of the cold air from the air conditioner and has learned to use the television, examining the world and pleased to see women playing more significant roles now than they did in her time. The running water in the bathtub intrigues her: she has never taken off all of her clothes to bathe and finds uncomfortable the idea of doing so.
Remembering the ship's last hours, she recalls one particular man, an Englishman, whom she met on the promenade deck soon after the ship struck the iceberg. Though she generally looked upon men with disdain, she felt a little more comfortable with this man, which she attributes to his gentle, soft eyes. When he told her that the ship would be all right, repeating the much-advertised point that it was supposed to be unsinkable, she dismissed his words of consolation and told him that she knew that it was sinking. Rather than the patronizing attitude that men ordinarily took with women, he accepted her intelligence, earning her respect. Later, she explains that she climbed into the life boat that was filled with women because he asked her to, while he stayed on the ship and faced his death with those left behind.
She remembers being on the lifeboat a few days after the Titanic sank and then hearing a large, loud machine approach from overhead: a helicopter. To the amazement of all of the women on the boat, the captain who speaks to them when they are loaded onto the helicopter is a woman, which is something that would have been unheard of in their time. The advances that women have made give Margaret hope, but they also give her a sense of being unneeded, since so much of her identity was connected to the struggle for gender equality.
The memory of the Englishman haunts her. She knew all onboard the Titanic would all die; she smells death nearby as she did in childhood when she and her father visited a town where the coalmine had collapsed on workers. The man, whom she calls "my man" to distinguish him from another man who was treating this disaster as a joke, stopped her when she wanted to go back to her cabin to read. He asked her to get into the lifeboat, and, despite her aversion to domineering men, she listened to him and agreed. For a moment, she considered touching him—reaching out and straightening his necktie, in a gesture of familiarity, as if they were a married couple.
Looking back on the experience from the present in the hotel room, Margaret realizes that she missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for human contact. Having mentioned before how she has never been comfortable with her naked body, even while bathing, she strips out of her clothes and fills the bathtub. She climbs into the tub as it is filling, and, in the end, slides under the water, imagining that drowning now will reunite her with the nameless man she left behind.
- Butler reads from his novel They Whisper and is interviewed on a 1994 audiocassette produced by the University of Missouri, recorded for the radio series "New Letters On the Air."
- Butler's interview for the American Audio Prose Library is available on "Robert Olen Butler: Interview with Kate Bonetti," released by AAPL. It is featured at www.audible.com for downloading.
- Butler's interview for "Soundings," the cultural affairs radio program produced by the National Humanities Center, is part of the center's audiocassette collection New Southern Writers, released in 1995.
- Readers accessing the official Florida State University Robert Olen Butler page at www.fsu.edu/∼butler/ can see Butler develop a story, day by day.
The Drunk Man
Just as the Englishman and Margaret are coming to realize that they view the world in the same way, a drunk man approaches them. He has a drink cooled with ice that was chipped off of the iceberg that has sealed their fate. In describing the drunken man, Margaret is forced to refer to the Englishman as "my man," a familiarity that she notes. Both she and "her" man disapprove of the drunken man's foolishness.
Margaret, the narrator of the story, is generally disdainful of men, finding them to be offensively patronizing and belittling toward women. However, on the night the Titanic sinks, she meets one man, an Englishman, whom she comes to trust, respect, and possibly even love.
He is described as being stiff in bearing like an Englishman but having nice, soft eyes, "a woman's eyes." He is tall, wears tweed clothes, and has a moustache. When they first meet, he tries to comfort Margaret with the idea that the ship is unsinkable, but she tells him of her certainty that it is in fact going to sink, and she is impressed that he actually listens to her opinion, instead of thinking that she, as a woman, would not know about mechanical matters. As they are talking, a drunk man approaches, and both Margaret and the Englishman share a feeling of disgust. When he tells Margaret that she should get into the lifeboat that is being filled with women, she walks away, but he finds her, and the care that he has shown in seeking her out reveals to her that he really does understand her. He is the first man for whom she feels anything like love, and she shows her feelings for him by obeying his request to leave in the lifeboat; minutes later, the ship sinks, and he drowns. After her rescue, more than eighty years later, Margaret cannot get this nameless man out of her mind, and, thinking of him, she submerges herself into the cold water of her bathtub, dying just as he has in cold water.
The first-person narrator of this story was on the Titanic when it sunk on the night of April 14-15, 1912. She was evacuated to a lifeboat, and, after drifting at sea for what seemed like just a few hours, suddenly found herself in modern times, rescued by a helicopter and taken to a room in Washington, D.C., where she is left to think about her past.
Margaret is a thirty-year-old woman. Her father, with whom she was particularly close, was a newspaper editor, and his intellectual curiosity carried on to his daughter. She is well-read, being familiar with authors such as the astronomer Percival Lowell and the economist Karl Marx, whose writings would have been considered inappropriate for young ladies in her day. When she recalls her father covering a coalmine strike in West Virginia, she thinks of him as standing up against the coal company and its "excesses."
She identifies with a strong feminist sensibility she has held to throughout her life. She is a great admirer of such luminaries of the suffrage movement as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. Her trip on the Titanic is a return passage from Europe. First, she attended a convention of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in London, where she was disappointed to find, when the women took their protest to the street, that the police opposed the protestors. Then she went to Venice, but soon became discontent with travel. Her status as a woman traveling alone was remarkable for a woman of the time.
As soon as the ship crashes, Margaret knows, intuitively, that the Titanic is sinking. She is willing to go back to her cabin and finish reading Edith Wharton's Ethan Fromme before dying, but a man whom she meets on deck, an Englishman with a gentle disposition, implores her to abandon ship in one of the lifeboats reserved for women. Though Margaret hates exactly this kind of pandering toward women, treating them as if they are children, she agrees. For a moment, as he is escorting her to the lifeboat and saying good-bye, she almost reaches out and embraces him, but she is too self-conscious to do so. Out on the sea in the boat, her mind focuses on the man who had shown her so much concern.
Finding herself suddenly in the 1990s, Margaret adapts fairly well. She accepts modern conveniences such as the television and the computer, understanding them in her own terms. She is glad to see the gains that women have made socially (and assumes incorrectly that they are farther reaching than in fact they are), but these gains also leave her with a sense of loss, since the thing that she fought for her whole life no longer appears to be an issue. At the end of the story, she takes off her clothes and climbs in the bathtub, which is something that she specifically states she would never have done before, and she slides under the water, apparently drowning herself to be reunited with the man with whom she almost shared a tender moment.
It is clear that Margaret's father was an important influence on her life. He was her intellectual inspiration. He took her with him to cover the coalmine strikes while he was a newspaper editor in West Virginia, and he gave her, as a teenager, a book about the possibility of life on Mars that he found so intriguing that he reported the author's thesis on the front page of the New York newspaper he was editing at the time. Thinking about the new world of the future to which she has found herself transported, Margaret frames its wonders in terms of headlines that her father might have written for his newspaper.
Her father is the only man to whom Margaret has ever been close. She remembers his death, just a year before the Titanic sank, when she was nearly thirty. At his bedside, she took his hand, an act of physical intimacy that, in the story, she finds herself unable to commit with the Englishman to whom she is attracted. His final words to her were, "I'm proud of you, Margaret," which shows the source of her self-assurance, her energy, and willingness to stand up against social convention. The tears that she wept over him, she says, were "from gratitude, as much as anything else."
When the lifeboat full of women who have escaped the sinking ship is rescued, the women are all brought on board a helicopter. Since no time has passed for them and they think it is still 1912, they are amazed to find that the captain of the rescue ship, Captain O'Brien, is a woman: this instantly shatters all of their notions of gender roles.
The term "Edwardian Age" refers to years during which Edward VII reigned. Though Edward was king from 1900 to 1910, the era named after him is often extended to the start of World War I in 1914. The Edwardian period marked the very different mood that prevailed in England and in America in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1901, Edward ascended the throne upon the death of his mother, Victoria, who had been queen since 1837. In the early 2000s, many people probably assume that the Victorian period was one of prudishness and repressed sexuality. To whatever extent that description is accurate, Victoria's son, Edward was quite a contrast. He was self-indulgent and licentious. His own behavior matched a developing English taste for permissiveness, intellectual inquiry, and social progressiveness.
Margaret fights Victorian assumptions. She tries to liberalize nineteenth-century standards for women, remnants of the old oppressive social order. Having grown up in a household that encouraged her to challenge conventional beliefs, she is prepared for the fight, but she leaves England disappointed in Englishmen who are resistant to female suffrage. In the end, though, the man who does listen to her and respect her individuality is an Englishman.
Margaret's obsession is female suffrage, a goal shared by many women and men at the start of the twentieth century. She is so involved in the National American Women Suffrage Association that she attends an international convention supporting the cause held in England.
Her concern for social justice shapes her world view: she is suspicious of men, expecting the worst of them. When she meets the Englishman on the deck of the Titanic, she thinks that he "seemed stupid at first, in a typical way": she expects him to dismiss her intuition about their present situation and is instead surprised to find that he takes her seriously. His acceptance, coming after years of struggling with men's patronizing attitudes, is such a surprise that it frightens and angers her, forcing her to walk away. At the end of their brief encounter, she finds that, even though she feels the right to, she cannot bring herself to reach out and touch him. At the last minute, faced with almost certain death, she is still bound by the traditional gender roles that she has spent her adult life struggling against.
Flesh versus Spirit
Though Margaret, the protagonist of this story, is strong spirited, she is unable to translate that strength into a sense of truly feeling at one with her own flesh. When she talks about going to Venice to be alone after facing crowds of hostile men at the rally in London, she describes her self-conscious inability to bathe or even to look at her own body naked. As she puts it, "For all my ideas I was not comfortable in this woman's body."
Margaret describes being told of her father's death and realizing that he "had left his body." She wonders, when faced with death at the sinking of the Titanic, whether her father found his body as useless as she found hers.
In the end, though, she comes to an understanding that unites her body and her spirit. In the future, far removed from the events of April 1912, she thinks about the Englishman with whom she shared a spiritual bond on that night. At the time, she was too self-conscious to touch him, as she wanted: looking back now at what has been important in her life, she is able to free herself of her clothes, as she was not able to before. Sliding naked into the cold water in the bathtub makes her acutely aware of her body, and she imagines that she and this man, with whom she connected in life can be together again, spiritually, this time in death.
This is a story about a woman who has worked so diligently to avoid being victimized by traditional gender roles that she suppresses the impulse to love when it occurs. The affection that Margaret shows for her father is deep, as is seen clearly in the scene where she sits by his bedside the night of his death and weeps while she holds his hand. Her love for the Englishman whom she meets on shipboard, however, is much less certain.
Throughout their brief encounter, Margaret holds this man at length. She never even learns his name. She expects a condescending attitude from him, and she is surprised to see his genuine interest in her, that he takes her seriously. Her suspicion is so strong that it keeps her from putting a hand up to his face as they are about to separate: the love impulse within her tells her to reach out to him, but Margaret has been conditioned to check herself. It is only after she survives the ordeal and is magically transported decades into the future that she takes the time to consider the potential in that relationship. Then she realizes that it was in fact love, and she wants to rejoin him in spirit.
Topics For Further Study
- Interview a large number of people about what they think the Bermuda Triangle is and what causes its mysterious power. Then research the scientific theories of people who have studied the area. What psychological need do you think accounts for the difference?
- The website for the parody newspaper The Onion lists made-up newspaper front pages from history. Find one from around the time of the Titanic sinking and write a short story based on it.
- Watch the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic, and the 1958 film A Night to Remember, which is also about the night that the ship went down. Write a comparison of the two films, explaining which story you found most compelling.
- Find the specifications of a contemporary luxury liner, and explain to your class why—in theory, at least—it will not sink.
- Research Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and write a report about what their personalities were like. Explain in detail what Margaret's interest in them says about her.
Throughout "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle," water is used to symbolize Margaret's fear of being touched. This is made most obvious in the segment of the story describing her trip to Venice. The trip itself is a quick diversion: she leaves London, goes to Venice, and is quickly back in London. It is not important to the plot, but it offers great symbolic significance. In Venice, as Margaret describes it, she found herself unable to bathe naked in a tub of water, overcome with shame at her own body. This aversion to water becomes even more poignant when she recoils in terror at finding that, due to high tide and/or a storm at sea, the Piazza San Marco is covered with overflow from the canals. She flees to America immediately thereafter, only to find herself faced with the prospect of drowning in the North Atlantic.
In the end, Butler uses the fear of water to show that Margaret has discovered a willingness to be free and open with her body. Having earlier mentioned a fear of the bathtub in her hotel room, she finally fills the tub and slips into the water. This willingness to submerge herself corresponds with her willingness to accept the idea that she actually does want to open herself up to the man she met on the ship that night.
First Person Point of View
Readers may find this story difficult to follow because the first-person point of view restricts the narrative and takes them from one time frame to another without explaining what is going on. The story takes place within Margaret's head and is placed so deeply within her consciousness that it does not identify places where one thought leads to another. Because the background is not established for specific scenes, readers have to interpret the clues around them in order to figure out what is going on. The basic premise of the piece, that it is the story of a person who was on the Titanic and has been transported to modern times through the magic of the Bermuda Triangle, is suggested in the title, but the order within the story is only dictated by Margaret private review of events.
The Sinking of the Titanic
The Titanic was advertised heavily throughout 1911 and 1912 as illustrating the future of ocean travel, a ship too huge and too well-designed to ever sink. It sank on its first voyage.
The theory behind the ship's presumed stability was its double-lined hull, which was divided into sixteen watertight compartments. Four of these compartments could flood, and the ship would stay afloat. Worldwide attention was drawn to its maiden voyage between England and New York. On the night of April 14, 1912, two days out of Southampton, the ship collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and five of the watertight compartments were ruptured, which was enough to make the Titanic lose its buoyancy. The initial impact was just before midnight, and by 2:30 a.m., the ship that had been called the greatest luxury liner ever was underwater. Of the 2,200 passengers, including many from the wealthiest families in the world, 1,513 drowned. Many of these could have been saved. But in their haste, people in lifeboats hurried away from the ship without being full, and the ship nearest, the California, did not hear the Titanic's distress call: the signal operator had turned off his radio and gone to sleep.
The Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is an area in the southern Atlantic ocean where weird phenomena have been said to have occurred for hundreds of years. It is the area bordered by Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico. More than a hundred ships and airplanes are rumored to have disappeared in this relatively small area, fueling rumors of alien abduction, government conspiracies, and paranormal activity. Hurricanes and waterspouts have been known to spontaneously flair up in this area, and strange lights have been reported in the skies.
The most popular explanation for the anomalies that occur in the Bermuda Triangle is that the area, for some reason, has a strange electromagnetic field that confuses navigational instruments. The uniqueness of the magnetism in this area is clear from the fact that it is one of only two places on Earth where true north and electromagnetic north actually align. Many theorists take the strange magnetic fields to be proof of the work of outside forces. The second most common scientific explanation for the apparent difficulty in navigating this area is the unevenness of the ocean floor: it varies widely within the Bermuda Triangle, from 5000 feet in the Florida Straits to 12,000 feet a few miles away to 30,000 feet near Puerto Rico. The floor of the ocean affects currents in ways that sailors who are used to more gradual changes cannot anticipate. In addition, the tropical weather is violent and unpredictable. There are plenty of logical explanations for the large number of ships lost in the Bermuda Triangle, just as there are plenty of supernatural explanations.
The Suffrage Movement
The struggle for women's rights in America was present at the country's founding, as is seen in a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, while he was attending the Continental Congress in 1976, asking him to "remember the ladies." He responded jokingly by using a line that was to be cited frequently over the next hundred and fifty years: the Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal.
The first Women's Rights convention, held in Seneca, New York, in 1848, galvanized the struggle for equality, identifying the inability to vote as a primary stumbling block to it. After the Civil War, those in the suffrage movement worked equally for the rights of women and blacks to vote; when the Fifteenth Amendment granted the vote to black citizens, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the group that, in 1890, became the National American Woman Suffrage Association, mentioned in the story. Stanton resigned from the group in 1892, falling out of favor with many members, who found her ideas too radical. In 1911, the year before Titanic sank, the National Association Opposed to Women's Suffrage was formed as a conglomeration of shadowy financial interests, backed by society women. Nonetheless, the right to vote—suffrage—was granted to women with the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920. Much of the organizing apparatus of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was used to form the League of Women Voters, which continued to be active into the early 2000s.
Almost every grocery store and convenience store in the United States has a rack near the checkout counter stocked with newspapers whose headlines pronounce lurid claims, usually combining the names of currently popular celebrities with pulse-quickening adjectives such as "bizarre," "twisted," "horrifying," "shocking," and so forth. These papers are referred to as "supermarket tabloids." The word "tabloid" refers to the papers' layouts: they are printed on half sheets that are folded in half, not in quarters, so that they can be thumbed through like books without the trouble of having to separate sections and unfold them. Traditionally, papers laid out this way have catered to the lower classes: people who might read their newspapers on a subway train or carry it in a back pocket to read during a break, as opposed to those who might have the luxury of spreading their newspaper over a breakfast table or desk. Editors of tabloids generally catered to uneducated readers with bold, gripping headlines about sensationalistic stories.
Compare & Contrast
- 1912: Women will not have the constitutional right to vote for another eight years.
Today: Political operatives study and preen candidates' images in order to find the best way to gain the "woman vote."
- 1912: The fastest way to get from Europe to the United States is by steamship. Under the best conditions, the trip takes approximately six days.
Today: British Airways' Concord airplane could make the trip between New York and London in less than three and a half hours, but it was retired in 2003 due to lack of interest.
- 1912: The distress call from the Titanic is not answered by the nearest ship because the communications operator has turned off his radio.
Today: In a crisis such as the Titanic faced, most of the passengers would be able to call anywhere in the world on their cell phones.
- 1912: Sailors speculate about the mysterious Bermuda Triangle, where ships have been known to mysteriously disappear.
Today: The phrase "Bermuda Triangle" is so well known that one can generally use it to refer to any mysterious disappearance.
- 1912: Many cities have daily tabloid newspapers that practice "yellow journalism": printing sensationalistic articles as "news," even when they have been made up by the writers specifically to capture public attention.
Today: Daily newspapers are usually held to standards of ethics and verifiability. Lurid, imaginary stories are the province of the low-end supermarket tabloids and bloggers.
Tabloids were increasingly available throughout the nineteenth century in the United States, but they became even more common with the 1890s competition between William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) and Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911). By the 1970s, tabloids were part of the newspaper mainstream. By that decade, the National Enquirer had been distributed at grocery stores for twenty years. Other newspapers, such as the Sun and the Weekly World News followed in its wake, offering stories that were attributed to ambiguous sources (such as "a close friend" of the celebrity being maligned) or simply running articles so preposterous that no one could take them seriously. As of the early 2000s, all U.S. supermarket tabloids are owned by the same publishing conglomerate, American Media.
Critics have generally been favorable to Robert Olen Butler's works throughout his career. When Tabloid Dreams was published, many critical responses focused on the book's general premise, which was to present twelve stories based on lurid-sounding titles that might have been actual headlines in some of the more sensationalistic supermarket tabloids. Bonnie Smothers, writing a review in Booklist, found that Butler "fairly giggles throughout this collection over the fun he's having." Smothers found the stories to be "fabulously grotesque" and praised Butler for "inventiveness bordering on excess." In America, Barbara C. Ewell noted her appreciation of Butler's narrative device and also found the stories to be meaningful on their own: "But what makes these tales more than hilarious devices is how much truth Butler makes the incredible captions reveal about being human, and how well they expose the strangeness of our own daily life." She ends her review by telling readers that "if his fiction makes us probe a little more deeply into the absurd dreams we all inhabit, then he's only doing his job—very well."
There are, however, critics who understand what Butler was trying to accomplish with the form he chose for these stories and yet still find that his skills fall short. An example of this criticism came from Theo Tait, who reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement. After acknowledging the book's success in mirroring the collective consciousness of these superficial times, Tait explained, "Unfortunately, these episodes frequently degenerate into a familiar brand of occult whimsy, failing to grapple with their intriguing subject-matter." He found the subject matter of the stories to be too focused on the theme of isolation, with one story after another striking the same note. While many critics have been delighted with what Butler achieved, there are a good number, like Tait, who wished he had accomplished more.
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at College of Lake County and Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. In this essay, Kelly looks at whether Butler tries too hard to avoid the sort of sensationalism that his story's title suggests.
Robert Olen Butler's 1996 short story collection Tabloid Dreams has a gimmick: each of the stories that it contains is based on a title that resembles the types of titles one finds in tabloid newspapers, the kind that shoppers thumb through while waiting in line at the supermarket. "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover," "Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis," and "Woman Struck by Car Turns into Nymphomaniac" are some of Butler's titles that could easily have been taken from the same weeklies that promise information about Bat Boy, aliens, and unlikely medical phenomena, all peppered with superlatives such as "amazing," "shocking," "mysterious," and "miracle."
Butler's use of these titles could be considered gimmicky because they reach out to a wider audience than literary fiction usually reaches. Cynical readers and critics could assume that Butler has actively courted a wide readership of people who would find his book easy to talk about with each other, given a handy description: an ordinary collection of short stories can be referred to by its title and author, but friends can take a shorthand approach to a book with a gimmick, telling each other, "Oh, it's the one where …" For this reason, popular response to a book with an obvious gimmick is inclined to be favorable. Critics, though, knowing that the gimmick might gain a book more popular attention than it otherwise deserves, tend to stare at such works with more skepticism than usual. They even distrust themselves, fearing that they might be kinder to a book that promises fun than they would be to just another work of literature.
Butler seemed to be aware of the probability of critical distrust, maybe too aware. Though the titles of the stories in Tabloid Dreams imply a playful sense and some tongue-in-cheek jibes at popular culture, the stories themselves are usually dry and serious. It is as if Butler has gone out of his way to curtail the charge that the fantasy, hallucinations, and paranoia implied by the titles of his stories are there for cheap thrills, and squeezed all of the thrills out of his fiction entirely. Nowhere is this more evident than in the collection's final tale, "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle." It is the story of a woman on the way home from a suffrage convention in Britain when the Titanic crashes into an iceberg: on the deck, a man she meets convinces her to seek safety in a lifeboat, and soon after she watches the ship sink she finds herself in the modern world. The title touches upon two elements that might capture the attention of fans of actual tabloids: the sinking of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland in 1912 and the mysterious Bermuda Triangle, where ships and aircraft are said to disappear without explanation. What the story delivers, though, is a woman in a hotel room, looking back on her life with regret.
The main thing to consider when asking whether Butler has let his gimmick affect his story too much is whether the story works on its own, regardless of its title. The story itself perches in several different, but familiar, conceits. First, there is the doomed shipboard romance. Forgetting for a moment that the narrator, Margaret, says that the ship she was on was the Titanic, this is just the story of two people, a man and a woman, who meet in that terrible time between a tragic event and its eventual, inevitable result. About the man, readers are told practically nothing: his story is told in detail in another story in Tabloid Dreams, but, considering this story on its own strength, he is just a tall, decent man with a moustache dressed in initially in tweed.
About the woman, much is known. As the narrator of the story, she darts in and out of important moments of her life, giving glimpses of herself at different ages, telling readers about her history, her family, her ambitions, her phobias. We learn that at the time of the boat crash she was thirty, a crusader for women's rights who had recently lost the father whom she adored. She distrusts men, but is uncertain about her own instincts. In some ways a Victorian, she is uncomfortable looking at her own body so she cannot comfortably take off all her clothes to bathe. She traveled to Venice, which was daring for a woman in 1912, but while there she experienced an unidentified dread when water filled the streets, and she raced for home.
Although the most of the story is concerned with Margaret's life in the year 1912 and before, the story actually takes place in modern times. She is in a hotel room in Washington D.C., where she has been for less than an hour. She has seen rescue helicopters and female army officers. She has seen television, on which she has seen "women intimately involved with machines," from which one can assume she means computers, automobiles, and the like.
Herein lies the most unsettling question about Butler's telling of the story: is Margaret's reaction to the situation she finds herself in credible? With so much new, so much unfamiliar life being introduced, is it possible that a person would spend her time dwelling on her past? The slippery thing about this question is that it concerns a possible person, not a likely one. You, yourself, might not spend your first hour in the computer age pondering your theories, or your father's theories, or the great suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton's, but if there could be one person who would do so, then Butler is certainly entitled to tell that person's story. He only has to convince readers that Margaret is that person.
What Do I Read Next?
- The narrator of this story refers to Edith Wharton's 1911 novel Ethan Frome, which she says she was a few pages from completing the night that the Titanic sank. In the book, Frome, a poor New England farmer, finds himself attracted to the enchanting, captivating Mattie Silver, who is the cousin of his homely, ill wife, Zeena.
- Butler's first short story collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Its fifteen stories, centered on the lives of Americans and immigrant Americans affected by the Vietnam War, force Vietnam folk myths up against the difficult realities of modern industrial life.
- Readers can get advice from Butler about how to write in his From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (2005), published by Atlantic Monthly Press.
- Unlike the titles in Butler's short stories, the works discussed in Bill Sloan's I Watched a Wild Hog Eat My Baby: A Colorful History of the Tabloids and Their Cultural Impact were all actually published in newspapers. Sloan, a former editor for the National Enquirer, gives an insider perspective on how decisions are made in the tabloid publishing business.
- The Story of the "Titanic" as Told by Its Survivors, edited by Jack Winocour, contains dozens of first-person accounts from the night the ship went down in 1912. Some of the voices echo the voice of Margaret in the story.
It is not inconceivable nor even unlikely. Margaret is thoughtful and painfully self-conscious, and her encounter with the mustachioed man on the ship is the closest thing she has ever had to a romance. She might, after a glance at the modern world, take note of what is unfamiliar to her and then turn back to the matters that already preoccupied her on the lifeboat. Margaret is an unusual case: but then, all stories ought to have protagonists who are unique.
Making Margaret so introspective gives Butler a chance to delve into such rich, diverse fields as history, philosophy, sociology, Freudian psychology, gender issues, and love. In order to stuff all of these issues into a short story, he needs to have Margaret just barely conscious of the circumstances that surround her, such as the fact that she has been transported across decades in the wink of an eye. It is one thing to refuse to dwell on the sensational, but "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle" refuses to even acknowledge the proverbial elephant on the living room sofa.
For instance, the story makes no mention of the supernatural. The title mentions that Margaret has been moved from the familiar world to the unfamiliar by the mysterious workings of the Bermuda Triangle, but the story does not use the words "Bermuda Triangle" at all. For all that the story's narrator knows, she was in one place one minute and then somewhere else: the best she can do to understand this transformation, with her 1912 mindset, is to compare the modern world to a 1895 description of life on Mars. Butler avoids the question of just how the Bermuda Triangle works, just as he refuses to offer any realistic explanation for any of the weird events in the other stories in the book. To do so is his right as a fiction writer. What he fills the story with while avoiding an explanation of what has happened are the protagonist's random thoughts and background fears.
The other attention-grabbing element in the story's title is the Titanic. To people familiar with the story of the ship's sinking, who would be drawn to a headline like this if it actually appeared in a tabloid newspaper, the fascination with the Titanic is not that two lonely people might have met before the disaster. There are particular aspects of the sinking that have been told and retold since 1912: for example, the band played "Nearer My God to Thee" as the boat went down, people cooled their drinks with chunks of the iceberg that had sealed their doom. Butler's dour narrator refers to both, but only disparagingly. The elements that became commonly known and which ordinary people found interesting about the ship's sinking are not relevant to her. This seems to reflect the attitude of the story in general: after catching readers' eyes with an extraordinary title, Butler seems to be warning them that fiction is not supposed to be fun.
Since the story focuses on Margaret's mental state and avoids having her interact with the strange new world in which she finds herself, the options for how it can end are limited. One might imagine an ending with her embracing her new home, perhaps picking up the telephone and summoning the people who put her in the hotel room to tell them—what? To buy her different clothes, take her out to work the press circuit? No, this story would never go there. Such an ending is cut from the same sensationalistic territory that this story goes to such lengths to avoid.
The end that Butler chooses is so constricted that it is can only work by turning symbolic. Margaret, longing for the romance that she did not have time or impulse to enjoy, decides to conquer the fear of water and nakedness that overcame her in Venice and to overcome the disdain for men that has defined her adult life. She explains that sliding into a tub of cold water will reunite her with the Englishman she did too little to get to know. If such a reunion is to happen, it could only be symbolic. (Unknown to her but known to readers of "Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed," which is also in Tabloid Dreams, his fate has been a transformation into water). It is a spectacularly quiet ending to an amazingly uneventful story.
"Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle" is more static than it needs to be, pushed deep inside the main character's psyche by the need to avoid seeming a slave to its exotic origins. All of the stories in Tabloid Dreams stem from populist roots, but they struggle against the very idea of whimsy that gave them their original purpose for being. Butler is a terrific writer, and the idea of working with tabloid sensibilities is a compelling one, but it seems as if, in working through his ideas, his basic gimmick may have scared him.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Becker has an M.M. in musicology from the University of Texas at Austin. As of 2005, he is completing his Ph.D. in musicology from the same school. In the following essay, Becker discusses the use of form, especially the conclusion, in the short story "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle."
In a time-based creative endeavor (meaning anything with a beginning, a middle, and an end which unfold over a certain time period), devising a satisfying ending can perhaps present the most difficult questions for the creator. How a composer resolves the sonic tension created during a piece, what decisions a director makes about how a film's momentum slows, or how an author wraps up the situations he has presented through out his story all have a major impact on how the audience receives the work as a whole. An exemplary finish can make up for an otherwise perfunctory work; in fact, some writers and authors make entire careers out of unique endings (for example, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable fame). At the same time, a poorly executed ending can spoil an entire work for the audience, even if the rest of it is top-notch.
For example, a common tactic in poor conclusions is the use of fairy-tale endings in which the hero implausibly wins the heart of the love interest, defeats the evil-doers, and, to boot, learns some important life lesson along the way. In short, everything ends neatly tied up and totally positive. While this may work in children's stories and Walt Disney movies, it generally does not for adult literature. After spending time witnessing the drama's unfurling, such an ending short-changes the audience. It leaves them feeling cheated or snubbed, as though they wasted their time.
To circumvent blatant fairy-tale endings, authors have endings which are just as "cheap" as that described above but are not as obviously childish. One of these is the ending in which the central character is placed in a difficult situation (or usually a series of them) only to find out in the end that it all has been a dream. In the 1980s the writers of the hit television show Dallas tried to use this tactic at the end of the 1985–1986 season; in the season finale, the main character wakes up one morning to find her husband alive (he was killed off at the end of the previous season) and that the events in this entire year's episodes were all figments of her imagination. Fans of the show were disappointed because they watched the show every week for months only to find out that none of it mattered—they wasted their time. A variant of the dream ending involves the character either dying suddenly or realizing he has been dead all along (for example the films Sixth Sense or 1990s Jacob's Ladder with Tim Robbins). This method is just as frustrating for an audience because killing off a character makes it easy for the author not to have to resolve the complicated situations he or she has created for that character. It all magically disappears. In other words, this type of ending feels like a cop out.
Given this discussion of types of endings, the conclusion of Robert Olen Butler's short story, "'Titanic' Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle," from his Tabloid Dreams merits a close examination. On the surface it would appear to be one of these difficult-to-digest endings. The character, Margaret, agonizes over her unfulfilled life and lost chance at love only to suddenly choose to drown herself in the bathtub on the very last page. However, Butler does not allow this to play out like an awkward, sophomoric gimmick. His choice to have her commit suicide is more than just a convenient, if a tad morbid, way to bring the story to a finish. Instead, his choice of ending works for this story and this character, even though death endings are often weak. This begs the question, "How does the author manage to kill off the only character in the story, yet manage to make it seem genuine rather than an unskilled stunt?"
To begin with, Butler's choice of ending is sensible in that death appears as a topic throughout the story. While Margaret's decision to die is sudden, at least the end is not the first time the reader has encountered death in the story. Perhaps the clearest example of this foreshadowing comes when Margaret first meets "her man," as she calls him, telling him she can sense death in the air; the feeling reminds her of the time when as a little girl she saw the mine disaster in West Virginia. Thus, Butler immediately establishes the theme of dying in the initial connection between them. In fact, this discussion serves as the turning point for her, the moment in which he wins her heart by both listening intently and apologizing for doubting her. This discussion of death in essence becomes the cornerstone of her attraction to him and an inseparable part of her memory of him. Given the early references to death, readers may not be surprised that death reappears as a topic when Margaret yearns for him decades later.
Soon after this flashback about West Virginia, Butler again brings up death when Margaret claims she was not afraid of dying while on board the sinking ship. Though she is not explicit about why, the reader can infer from the next paragraph that it is because a year before she had experienced the death of her father. After remembering his death, Margaret thinks again about the Titanic. Butler comes back to the subject of mortality by having her decide to return to her cabin to finish the book she was reading. In this book, Edith Wharton's novel Ethan Frome (1911), two lovers decide to kill themselves rather than face the shame of an illicit affair. Thus, in a matter of a mere four pages, Butler makes the reader aware of death through a variety of references. These indirect omens for her suicide at the end serve to make her final act more understandable. To put it another way, by repeatedly broaching the topic of death in such a short space, Butler paves the way for Margaret to commit suicide without completely blindsiding the reader.
In addition to the way death recurs in the story, Butler's potentially self-indulgent ending is successful because it is a realistic one for his main character. To begin with, Margaret openly admits near the beginning of the story that she is alone. Further, she describes her life in the decades since the sinking as that of a deep dreamless sleep. In fact, the only time she seems to have not felt alone and catatonic was during the brief time she spent on the deck of the sinking ship with "[her] man"; this short-lived encounter was her only brush with any sort of romance. Because of this lack of exuberance in her lifetime, she paces around the hotel room, "frantic with regret," over her inability to savor the little time she had with the Englishman. At this point in her life, she desperately wants to reconnect with this fleeting moment, the only time she has felt a close personal connection and intimacy with a potential sexual partner. Now, still thirty but suddenly in the late twentieth century, Margaret realizes she has outlived her peers; thus a reunion with the Englishman in death is attractive.
Margaret chooses a highly symbolic manner of dying. How she does it is important since she believes that "the mind's energy surely crackled on beyond the body." How she dies would have an impact on the way her energy will "crackle" after her departure. Perhaps it would affect her reunion with the Englishman in the afterlife, especially considering she hopes that "his spirit has found its way to me and is gazing on this vessel of my body." If he is watching, she needs to him to approve of her actions. Since the Englishman died in icy water, her death by the same method appeals to her. In short, Butler's choice is a nearly perfect solution to Margaret's situation. She will get to reconnect with the Englishman (albeit in the afterlife) which will ease her suffering from both solitude and regret over her lost chance at love; plus the method she chooses will resonate with how he died.
But does the ending relate to the rest of the story? Any part of the narrative, be it a twist ending or a perfunctory beginning, should be more than just plausible in terms of the plot. It should play into the mood, feel, or theme of the rest of the story; a reader should be able to interpret it as easily as any other part. Gimmick endings (or any section of a story for that matter) stand out in that they have little or nothing to do thematically with the others.
In this case, Margaret's suicide underscores the message of the whole story: the importance of living fully. Margaret's actions are not heroic but they express her single regret: "if I were the woman my mind has always aspired to and even believed I was, I should have taken the initiative there, should have touched him."
Source: Michael Becker, Critical Essay on "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Carter is a freelance writer. In this essay, Carter considers the merits of Butler's story from a surrealistic perspective.
Robert Olen Butler's "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle," is, on the surface, a personal account of a narrator whose life has been defined by two equally profound, near-death experiences and the impact these experiences have had in shaping the course of her life and ultimate suicide. From this perspective, it is a rather dismal account. Beneath the surface, however, is a tale of supernatural proportions, punctuated with inconsistencies that suggest Butler's narrative is more than a mere survivor's tale, but a beautiful, surrealistic love story powerful enough to transcend the physicality of space and time.
At the beginning of the story, the narrator recounts the Titanic disaster, including here own feelings and associations. The narrator talks of her heart as "a place ripped open by ice and letting all this cold air rush in." Her experience and escape from tragedy has left a gash in her heart. The narrator speaks of being "so cold in the boat." She recalls how a "vast jagged wall of ice sought out at once" the ship on which she was a passenger. Similar images dominate the opening pages, as her focus shifts back and forth between the sinking ship and the air-conditioned hotel room; she focuses on the view of the sea and the sky, lights blazing and smoke smoldering.
Butler sets the stage for the story of a woman who, deeply traumatized, walks the world in a dreamlike state. Central to the action is the narrator, who acknowledges the emotional toll that has been taken on her spiritually. Rhetorically, the narrator asks, perhaps even pleading for a belief in the present, "Why am I still slow in believing in the reality of this hotel room in a year decades removed from the night when I fled a ship and then fell into a deep sleep?" The setting is also driven early on by other pertinent or important historical clues. Butler's protagonist expresses her displeasure for the captain of a ship, whom she calls an "arrogant man," positioning herself as "a scorned woman." Along with everyone else on the ship, she is jeopardized by his incredible shortsightedness. But for Margaret he also represents as the gender collective, "men who would not let us speak, much less gain the vote."
Buried almost casually within Margaret's recollections is yet another near miss with death. The reader discovers that she has escaped not one, but two terrible accidents at sea. She describes her mortal predicament this way: "I understand that I am alone in some surpassing way, plucked out of a place in the sea apparently notorious for mysteries, a place far from the fatal ice field." Thus readers learn that she has both survived the Titanic disaster and the Bermuda Triangle; she has outlived her contemporaries, yet she remains "just turned thirty." The narration moves between the past and the present in a dreamlike fashion as Margaret remembers what matters most to her. Events seem to be separated more by their emotive power than by distinct moments in time.
The story moves between the Titanic's fateful voyage and the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle, from which, as the title suggests, the narrator has emerged. This claim tests credibility. Margaret is fortunate enough to survive the Titanic and then is safely plucked from a location in the ocean where many disappear. But the Titanic and the Bermuda Triangle incidents represent more than two mysterious tragedies. One is a romantic memory from the narrator's past; the other, a circumstance from which the narrator has reemerged, as if from a long sleep. Essentially the story moves between two periods in history, from the turn of the twentieth century to the late twentieth century. On an emotional level, these time periods are diametrically opposed; therefore, the movement is troubling for the narrator. She sees herself as a step out of time, out of agreement with modern society. She approaches the twentieth century as one without hope or promise, but with arguments against industrialization.
Her misery is compounded by two things: first, separation from the object of her fantasy, the Englishman, a love story lost opportunity. The narrator states, "I find myself now walking around and around this room at the end of the twentieth century and I am frantic with regret, for on that night I could find no other language with which to speak." She regrets touching him only to straighten his tie: "I wanted to take him in my arms, but I did not, I could not, I was being a lady. God forgive me," she exclaims. She is haunted by this lost opportunity and what she perceives to be a separation from the other. This is in fact the context with which she frames her reaction to escaping the Titanic. She is, by her own admission, not afraid to die; she welcomes the idea. Her reaction to survival is not one of elation; rather, she regrets not going down with the ship if doing so could have offered her a chance to experience equality and intimacy with a tender man who took her seriously.
The second rift is a matter of living versus existing. She is disturbed by being detached from contemporary society. From the outset, the narrator claims that she is "in a place and time as foreign to me as Planet Mars." In describing the hotel room she chooses to recall her romantic encounter as it unfolded in the moments before impending tragedy. It seems that she has kept her cloths from the Titanic, favoring them over those that are laid out in her room, which are to her immodestly revealing. She claims that she no longer knows what to do with her body, now that her mind has been rendered obsolete with modern advances. She remarks, "When I was a child—dear God, more than a century ago now." For her only a brief time has lapsed since the ship when down, but she now realizes decades have gone by and she is thrust into a new world.
Suddenly thrust into the late twentieth century, the narrator who has committed herself to female suffrage realizes, "I am no longer needed, for one thing. I have no proof of it, but I am certain in a world like this that women have the right to vote." Given the changes between 1912 and the 1990s, she would naturally feel uncomfortable, perhaps even frightened, by technologies that have emerged during the lapsed decades. In light of her circumstances, then, an extreme discomfort with her surroundings is no surprise.
Moreover, Margaret does not want to endure life without the connection she felt briefly to the Englishman. The narrator's world is a watery one, her story's emotive power shifting, murky, turbulent as the deep ocean waters from which she has emerged twice. Despite her good fortune or perhaps because of it, she is haunted by the souls of those not so fortunate that night on the Titanic, but by the modern world in which she has found herself desperately out of place, purposeless, and alone. Her suicide is an effort to transcend these circumstances in order to be again with the Englishman. In light of these circumstances, Robert Olen Butler's "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle" is a hauntingly beautiful love story about a woman's hope to transcend the physical boundaries of space and time.
Source: Laura Carter, Critical Essay on "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Barbara C. Ewell
In the following review, Ewell praises Butler's stories for making "us probe a little more deeply into the absurd dreams we all inhabit."
We depend on writers to show us the unreality of our lives. If they do their job right, they remind us how we always seem to be missing what is important in our efforts to be human. But when we live in a world as bizarre as contemporary America, with its hysterical machines and ironic facades, then the writer's work becomes a bit tricky. How do you expose unreality in a world devoted to counterfeit and substitution? How can you tell which is which? Robert Olen Butler is one writer who seems to thrive on the challenge.
In his first collection of short stories, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, Butler sharpened the sense of strangeness by focussing on exiles. Part of what makes the stories in that volume so compelling (apart from the recognition that Butler is just a white boy from Illinois), is that the exiles are mostly Vietnamese, often women, and that they live in south Louisiana, a part of the country whose peculiarity is pretty much certified by the Cajun twists it applies to what passes for normal in the southern United States. In Tabloid Dreams, his second collection of short stories, Butler achieves a similar angle of difference simply by going to the grocery stores and buying the perspectives of the tabloids much as we all eventually do, standing in line to exercise our habits of ridiculous comsumption.
The premise—or at least the writerly trick—of these stories is an exploration of tabloid headlines as though they were true. This is a wonderful gimmick, really—and the fact that Butler is working with HBO to produce a television series based on these stories indicates just how clever the ploy is. But what makes these tales more than hilarious devices is how much truth Butler makes the incredible captions reveal about being human, and how well they expose the strangeness of our own daily life.
One of the best stories, "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover," illustrates the kind of depth that Butler can elicit from such an apparently silly supposition. Edna Bradshaw, a 40-year-old insomniac and divorcée, finds great comfort when the "regular old Wal-Mart" of Bovary, Ala., becomes a 24-hour Super Center. It gives her a place to go in the wee hours when her loneliness gets the best of her.
One night in the parking lot she encounters a little spaceman, whom she calls Desi—because it's the right name for someone we like even though they talk "with a funny accent." He has been waiting for her, he says, because Edna always tells the truth: "You seem always to say what is inside your head without any attempt to alter it." Edna is won by Desi's gentle courtship, something in short supply in Bovary (and not entirely approved by Desi's fellow planetary researchers), and she adjusts admirably to all the little shocks of his difference—his "eight-sucker hands" and big eyes, his telepathic ability and smaller-than-expected spaceship—"not as big as all of Wal-Mart certainly, maybe just the pharmacy and housewares departments put together."
If Desi helps Edna to "see things in the larger perspective," Edna's willingness to love a spaceman reminds us how our usual notions of what is "pretty and sweet" may need "some serious adjusments" if we hope to overcome our loneliness. The the primary antidote for such loneliness is 24-hour shopping—or loving cats ("subspecie companions") and spacemen instead of our tyrannical daddies or fellow Bovarians—is exactly the "kind of odd thing that makes you shake your head about the way life is lived on planet Earth."
Much of Butler's humor derives from the blunt naïveté of his narrators. Like Edna, they seem not to censor themselves in commenting on their lives; and, like the tabloids themselves, they willingly tell all, revealing absurdity and shallowness but also a great deal of suffering. In Butler's tabloid dreams, unloved or betrayed women become deadly—bashing thick-headed men with meteorites or setting themselves on fire at baking contests they have lost like their lives. Wives and husbands learn the bitter truth about their philandering partners by becoming glass eyes or suicidal parrots; young boys revenge their absent fathers by becoming efficient hit men or their mother's lovers.
One of Butler's gifts is his obvious sympathy for these absurd people, blundering toward love and stumbling onto truths they don't quite recognize. Like the stiffly proper narrator of "Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed," whose icy death transforms him into water and who ends up inside a waterbed on which lovers thrash about (after experience as clouds and rain and rivers and lakes and tea and—you know), these are "solitary travellers[s]." They only become "fully conscious" after they are dead. But they do at least see something. And so do we. By showing us how really strange things could be, Butler's stories give us new ways to look at our experience. And if his fiction makes us probe as little more deeply into the absurd dreams we all inhabit, then he's only doing his job—very well.
Source: Barbara C. Ewell, Review of Tabloid Dreams, in America, May 17, 1997, pp. 28-29.
In the following review, Mazmanian recommends Butler's collection highly, calling the stories "inventive, compelling fantasies."
Hearing a voice from beyond the grave is usually a chilling, blood-curdling experience. However, being such a voice, issuing unheard from an improbable source (a parrot, a waterbed), offers the lost soul plenty of time to reflect on the missed opportunities of a life not fully lived. And though a lurid sensibility permeates the titles and tableaux of the "tabloid" tales in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Butler's latest collection, this vision of post-mortem regret is at the heart of Butler's sad, mirthful stories. In "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," a woman buys the avian reincarnation of her ex-husband in a Houston pet store and takes him home, where he ruminates on his past and present failure to express his unconditional love for his wife: "I was not enough. 'Bad bird,' I say. I'm sorry." Widowed housewife Gertie in "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire" chooses self-immolation when she is forced to realize that her whole life has been sucked away, down the ungrateful gullets of men. As rumored, John Kennedy is not dead, but has merely lost his capacity for self-censorship and is kept in seclusion by the CIA to restrain him from compulsively revealing state secrets. In "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction," the 79-year-old former president travels incognito to Sotheby's to retrieve a relic of his former grandeur but is woefully short of cash. Butler's wicked humor is tempered by genuine compassion for the characters' indelible misfortunes. Readers everywhere will enjoy these inventive, compelling fantasies. Highly recommended.
Source: Adam Mazmanian, Review of Tabloid Dreams, in Library Journal, September 1, 1996, p. 212.
In the following essay, Nordgren discusses Butler's writing career.
As of 1996 Butler's publications include eight novels, a prize-winning collection of short stories, and numerous contributions to respected journals and reviews. His defining themes are the suffering that results from thwarted desire and the intimacy that characterizes fundamental human relationships. His crafting of these topics in his collected stories about Vietnamese expatriates living in southwest Louisiana placed him at the forefront of American letters. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) earned the Pulitzer Prize, the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Southern Review/LSU Prize for Short Fiction, a PEN/ Faulkner Award nomination, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Robert Olen Butler was born on 20 January 1945. An only child, he grew up, as did his parents, in the small steel-mill town of Granite City, Illinois, in the river bottoms across the Mississippi from Saint Louis and a few miles northwest of Cahokia State Park. His father, Robert Olen Sr., is a retired actor and former 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." His mother, Lucille Hall Butler, is a retired executive secretary, and her stories about Granite City during the Depression inspired the content for Wabash (1987), Butler's fifth novel.
Butler moved only twice during his years with his parents. He entered grade school in Springfield, Missouri, and completed fourth grade in Overland Park, Kansas, but when he was ten, his family returned to Illinois. After junior high he went to Granite City High School, becoming president of the student body, and graduated as class covaledictorian 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.
Planning to major in theater, Butler enrolled at Northwestern University. As a freshman he was cast in four of the school's six major productions for 1963–1964, but in his sophomore year he turned to oral interpretation and playwriting. In addition to required creative-writing courses, he studied for five months with British author Stephen Spender and graduated summa cum laude in June 1967. That fall Butler attended graduate school at the University of Iowa, and on 10 August 1968 he married Carol Supplee. He earned an M.F.A. in play-writing.
Butler suspected that after graduate school he would be drafted for military duty in Vietnam, so he visited the army recruiter in Granite City and enlisted. He committed 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. In February 1969 he started basic training in Fort Lewis, Washington, and was then transferred to Fort Holabird, Maryland. From Fort Holabird Butler went to language school in Washington, D.C., and spent a year learning Vietnamese from a native speaker. Fully trained as a linguist, he was assigned in January 1971 to a counterintelligence unit near Bien Hoa and within six months was chosen to be the administrative assistant and interpreter for the American Foreign Service officer advising the mayor of Saigon. Butler left Vietnam in December 1971, and the following month he was mustered out of the army. He told Joseph Olshan (People) about his year of active service: "Vietnam ravished me sensually. I made amazing friends, from my favorite leper beggar to the highest officials. After I came back, there were a hundred flashes of memories, prompted by a smell of overripe fruit, a certain perfume, a glimpse of a woman's ankle. And I was filled with the same sense of nostalgia, loss and even aspiration that the Vietnamese in my stories feel."
After his wife and he divorced, Butler moved to New York City and became a reporter for Electronic News, owned by Fairchild Publications. On 1 July 1972 he married Marylin Geller. Although he advanced to editor of the journal, he and his second wife decided in mid 1973 to move to Granite City, and he worked as a high-school substitute teacher and freelance writer for a year. Following the birth of a son, Joshua, he rejoined Electronic News in Chicago for eighteen months, at which time Fairchild 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 lapboard 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 taught by Anatole Broyard, who encouraged him.
Butler has been tagged a Vietnam novelist even though he finds the label disparaging. He told Jon Anderson (Chicago Tribune): "It's like saying Monet was a lily-pad painter; artists get at deeper truths." Three of his first four books, however, loosely form a Vietnam trilogy, each novel focusing on a different member of a common group of characters. Clifford Wilkes in The Alleys of Eden (1981), Wilson Hand in Sun Dogs (1982), and David Fleming in On Distant Ground (1985) served in an army intelligence unit located outside Saigon. For months they established a routing for bringing donations to a nearby Catholic orphanage, and on one of these visits, Vietcong soldiers attacked the compound and took Hand prisoner. After the raid Fleming approached Wilkes to act as his interpreter when questioning a suspected VC military insurgent picked up by the National Police. While they interrogated and tortured the man, he died of a heart attack. Within a few days Fleming discovered where Hand was being detained and set out to rescue him. Wilkes's tour would have elapsed in seven months, but his collusion in the prisoner's death upset him to the point of deserting. One morning he stole a jeep and passed Fleming and Hand returning to base camp as he was on his way toward Saigon and an uncertain future.
The Alleys of Eden begins in an alley apartment of Saigon, which is destined to fall soon to the insurgent North Vietnamese. Cliff Wilkes is in bed with the twenty-eight-year-old bar girl with whom he has been living for the past four years, and while Lanh sleeps, he remembers the people who have either by fate or choice previously forsaken him. His father died when Wilkes was fourteen. When he was at college, his mother remarried and began a new but distant life. A political activist whom he befriended at Northwestern University fled to Canada after they had hitchhiked to an antiwar rally on the West Coast. Francine, his former wife, divorced him during his first leave from the army. She wrote to him about marriage: "It is death. It stops me from really connecting to other people. And I have to connect as myself. Not part of a tandem." Wilkes determines not to abandon Lanh. As a precursor for many of Butler's future characters, he must contend with the unforeseen, including changing identities: He deserts from the army; he and Lanh are separated as they flee in the chaos during the fall of Saigon; they are reunited in Speedway, Illinois.
A pivotal scene unfolds when Lanh and he are invited to dinner by their Speedway neighbors, Quentin and June Forbes. The Forbeses honestly wish for Lanh to feel comfortable in their home, yet everything about them—their politics, their horseradish, their expensive china, their beliefs about death and an afterlife—is alien to her. Excluded from what they know, Lanh watches Cliff sneak out of the hiding his desertion from the army has required and bond with people who have a claim on his past. At their apartment that night, she tells him: "I would have felt more comfortable stripped naked and marched through the streets of Saigon before a VC bayonet." Happiness abandons her until she is embraced by a Vietnamese refugee family in town.
Following a disastrous visit to his former wife, in which he is nearly trapped by the police seeking to arrest him, Wilkes returns to Lanh and is intimate with her for a final time. Butler shows them connecting passionately, sensually as woman and man; afterward Wilkes gets dressed and walks into Speedway's deserted main street. Going to Canada, he remembers a female reporter telling him: "A man's home is where he is innocent." He and Lanh have tried to prevail over their cultural barriers, but are unable to revive the Edenic joy they had shared in Saigon.
Vietnam was not a popular subject when Butler started shopping around his manuscript. The Alleys of Eden 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. The book came out the next year and sold eighty-five-thousand copies in paperback.
Within a year Horizon published Butler's second novel, Sun Dogs. Sun dogs are "mock suns" formed by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, and the narrator points out that in the Arctic these reflections of ice "run with the sun, speak to it of things unseen, things that claim a special knowledge." Butler's title assumes far-reaching implications as he examines the depletion of natural and human resources during the energy debate of the early 1980s.
The plot involves Wilson Hand approximately ten years after he had been a prisoner in Vietnam. A self-employed private investigator who is anxious to get away from New York City, Hand accepts Royal Petroleum's offer to find who has been stealing confidential maps and reports from its headquarters at Moonbase on Alaska's North Slope. After he visits his former wife on the afternoon before he is to leave, she jumps to her death from her fourteenth-floor apartment balcony. A newspaper photograph of her bare legs projecting from a smashed windshield and flashbacks to his week in the VC prison camp are the mock suns that pursue Hand in Alaska when winter temperatures plummet to seventy-five degrees below zero.
Butler attacks corporate ethics in his account of Royal Petroleum's propaganda war. An advocate for the U.S. president's energy independence campaign, Royal wants foreign and domestic consumers to think America has abundant natural reserves. The stolen maps and reports, however, confirm that Alaska is nearly depleted of resources. The company hopes to bury this information and thus give itself time to develop a strategy for capitalizing on the panic that will result when the news is spread. Without suspecting it, Hand has been retained to assist Royal Petroleum in its scheme.
At Moonbase Hand falls in love with a sensuous but untrustworthy woman named Marta Gregory. Marta and he agree to avoid the "emotional clutter of words" when making love, but on one occasion they break their rule of silence, and she discloses that her father's death has overshadowed her life. A cold and imposing Wall Street broker, he became ill when she was twelve and made her sit at his hospital bedside and listen to his regrets for having been so distant. When he started saying all the right things that he previously lacked the time to say, Marta began to hate him. His example has made her distrustful of everyone's sincerity, thus putting feelings connected to loyalty, as she knows, beyond her emotional grasp.
Bush pilot Clyde Mazer, in contrast, possesses a bold vitality for life. Butler creates in him a maverick who drinks, tells stories, squanders money, and flirts with both women and danger. Appalled by deception, he is the one person upon whom Hand can rely. Hand asks Clyde to fly him from Anchorage to Moonbase so he can verify that the trans-Alaskan pipeline is going dry. After crashing onto a mountain ledge in a seldom-used pass of the Brooks Range, they are without food, heat, and light as they huddle inside their makeshift ice cave. Clyde falls asleep, and while listening to his friend's agonized breathing, Hand begins stripping away his clothing as images of VC guards and of Beth stepping onto her balcony crystallize in his mind. Unafraid of dying, he whispers to Clyde in the darkness: "Eat it is finished." Thus Butler unites self-sacrifice and life-fulfilling peace, which he foreshadows in the book's epigraph from Leviticus 22:7: "And when the sun is down, he shall be clean."
Vietnam and Energy User News provided Butler with material for his first two books. In Countrymen of Bones (1983) he steps beyond personal experiences to probe dimensions of violence against the backdrop of World War II. In the Jornada del Muerto, a section of New Mexico desert known as "the journey of the dead," an archaeologist and a physicist become rivals during the weeks leading to the first experimental atomic detonation on the morning of 16 July 1945. The book's theme compresses into J. Robert Oppenheimer's pronouncement: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds."
The most technically innovative of Butler's early novels, Countrymen of Bones alternates between characters and locales, simultaneously developing two stories. Darrell Reeves has been trying for a decade, according to his former wife, to excavate his way to God. Employed by the University of Santa Fe, he is sifting through what he thinks to be a burial mound that happens to be located one thousand yards from the spot Oppenheimer has designated as ground zero. Reeves's antagonist, an army scientist named Lloyd Coulter, divides his time between Los Alamos and Trinity Base Camp, ten miles southwest of the archaeological dig. In the opening scene Reeves clutches a weaponlike trowel while looking down the desert wastes. His funds are virtually exhausted, and he worries that his professional intuition might be betraying him since his digging thus far has yielded nothing. As Reeves drifts into listlessness, Butler cuts to Los Alamos two hundred miles to the north. Having been with Oppenheimer for two years, Coulter knows they are at the brink of failure. The plutonium-gun idea is dead; the Holocaust continues in Europe. Time is running out for the Manhattan Project as scientists debate Seth Neddermeyer's implosion theory. By creating parallel narratives, Butler generates intensity for the important moment when Coulter and Reeves will collide.
Reeves has been ordered to complete his work in fifteen weeks and then evacuate. In this time, he unearths the bones of an ancient Indian death cult, meets a disabled former colleague, falls in love with army private Anna Brown, hears of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, and in self-defense kills an indignant rancher. Whereas Butler allows Reeves to have a measure of control over his emotions, anger destroys Lloyd Coulter. The son of an abusive father, Coulter lashes out at his coworkers, Oppenheimer, Reeves, and himself. In his worst moment he rapes Anna, driven by some hidden impulse whose mystery is "locked far tighter than the heart of an atom."
Anatole Broyard (The New York Times) praised Butler's depiction of Anna Brown for recognizing "love as a powerful violence too, a sublime one that can distract from other kinds." Her encouraging wide-set Indian eyes entice Reeves and Coulter to talk about themselves. Confused about why men are attracted to her, she tells Coulter when rejecting his marriage proposal: "I'm not the kind of girl I sometimes seem. I guess I just don't understand how I come across sometimes." After being raped, she escapes to be with Reeves on the morning of the atomic test.
Butler places the burden of his message on a found artifact. After the bomb detonation, in which Coulter dies, the narrative jumps ahead in time to a hotel room near Times Square. Anna and Reeves are celebrating their honeymoon and the end of the war. From among the ancient burial remains, Reeves has brought with him an ornamental stone collar shaped like a human face with wide-set eyes from which two jagged lines descend. He interprets the jagged lines to be a symbolic mournful expression of impending death, although Anna is quick to disagree. For her they encompass all of human history, conveying grief "at what men can do."
After Countrymen of Bones Butler changed publishing houses and editors when Horizon Press was bought out and Ben Raeburn left the firm. Butler took his manuscripts-in-progress, including half of On Distant Ground, the third book in his Vietnam trilogy, to New York agent Candida Donadio. Within two weeks he was a Knopf author and Lee Goerner was his editor.
Whereas The Alleys of Eden opens in Vietnam and closes in the United States, On Distant Ground begins in the United States and concludes in Vietnam. Dates, settings, and events in the two novels overlap as Capt. David Fleming's ties to Southeast Asia impel him toward surprising decisions. At Fort Holabird in April 1975, Fleming is to go on trial for assisting the enemy during his tour of duty. While awaiting formal court-martial proceedings, he privately arraigns himself for failing as a husband; for losing contact with Nguyen Thi Toyet Suong, a woman with whom he briefly fell in love in Saigon; and for helping a Vietcong prisoner to escape from his captors. Fleming's devotion to truth, in the end, secures his redemption.
Butler structures events from a moment of psychological curiosity. Fleming recalls an episode from his past in which he and his CIA team had seized key Vietcong leaders and were instructed to turn them over to the South Vietnamese. During a visit to these prisoners, he entered a vacant cell and was struck by the phrase ve-sinh la koe ("hygiene is healthful") scratched into one of its walls. He knew instantly that he shared a particular "detachment of the mind" that made him fear for the cell's prior occupant as he would for himself. Determined to find the person, he learned he was tracking a man named Pham Van Tuyen (twin), whom he later helped to escape from a South Vietnamese camp. Fleming's recollections thematically elevate human decency to a level above patriotism, and in the present action Butler turns to family issues to underscore Fleming's personal integrity.
Before Fleming's trial concludes, his wife gives birth to their first child. He is allowed to stay at home with Jennifer and David Junior until a verdict is reached, and during a news broadcast one evening, he watches intently as orphans, many of whom have distinctly American features, are being evacuated from Saigon. Their faces stir memories of his affair with Suong, and he is certain he has a four-year-old son whom he must rescue. "He realizes this is madness," says reviewer Joe Klein (The New York Times), "but is too self-absorbed to stop himself." Klein adds, "It is a tribute to Mr. Butler's skill as a writer that his story's pyramiding absurdities seem not merely plausible but inevitable." Desire becomes action when Fleming is dishonorably discharged but assigned no prison time.
When Fleming arrives in Vietnam, he is enveloped by the panic of a country on the run. Playing on hunches, he locates Suong's mother, introduces himself to his son Khai, visits the prison where Suong had died, and on two occasions comes face-to-face with Tuyen, currently the director of security in Saigon for the Provisional Revolutionary Government. Their second meeting occurs after Fleming is captured while trying to smuggle Khai out of the city. When the opportunity arises, Tuyen admits that he lacked the bravery ever to have written the words Fleming ascribes to him, but repaying a debt, he arranges for Fleming and Khai to be transported safely to Bangkok. The book's closing asserts that mutual respect is a requisite for reconciliation and peace.
With the success of his fourth novel, Butler's publishing credentials presented him with an opportunity to change careers. In the summer of 1985 he left Energy User News and accepted a creative-writing post at McNeese State University, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he still teaches. When Joseph Olshan asked about his first visit to Lake Charles, Butler said, "My God, it was [like] the Mekong Delta! The same rice paddies, the same calligraphy of marshland waterways and that subtropical kind of haze. It seemed the most natural place in the world for me to be." Although the setting was natural, he had succumbed to what he called "functional fixedness." Butler had so adapted to writing while riding commuter trains that he told David Streitfeld (Washington Post): "I thought I would have to buy a little electric motor and fix it to my chair, hire someone to come in and flap a newspaper. I was having a lot of trouble writing in a quiet room that wasn't moving." Once settled, he began mapping out his fifth novel, Wabash, by drawing on his mother's stories about Granite City during the Great Depression.
In 1932 Wabash, Illinois, is mired in corporate intimidation and escalating poverty. Wabash Steel exercises baronial power over the town, and Butler shows it financing community life, regulating local politics, and enforcing strong-arm laws. Deborah and Jeremy Cole are a couple in their early thirties who have yet to recover from the death three years earlier of their only child, Elizabeth. Jeremy carries his misery "like a lump of slag" into the blast furnaces where he works. Since Lizzy's death, physical intimacy has demanded too great an effort from him, so he retreats into his suffering. Deborah is helpless on two fronts. First, she is unable to rescue Jeremy from his pain, and second, she cannot stop the endless bickering between her mother and aunts. Deborah visits her relatives while Jeremy is at the mill, and in bed at night they grieve. When Deborah prevents Jeremy from assassinating John J. Hagemeyer, the company's owner, their passion flares "like a Wabash night, burning them until they are clean."
As in Countrymen of Bones, Butler juxtaposes two narratives so that Deborah's battles at home correlate to Jeremy's conflicts at work. Deborah's mother, Miriam, and her aunts, Adah, Berenice, and Della, seem trapped by their sooty lives. Bored, childless, and unmarried, Adah and Della often sit on Miriam's porch swing and fret half-heartedly about their sister Berenice going mad. There is a fifth sister, Effie, about whom the others speak as if she were dead. Deborah now and then visits her eccentric grandmother whose home borders the town dump. Continuing a family tradition, Grandma Birney writes polite but firm warning letters to the river rats clawing around in her house. Deborah hears from her that Effie is alive and residing in Saint Louis, but that she has been ostracized for becoming a Catholic and accepting the Virgin Mary as her true mother. When Grandma Birney dies, Deborah persuades Effie to attend her mother's funeral, but the sisters will not be reconciled. Berenice's suicide prompts Deborah to write her own "Dear Rats" letter in which she threatens to poison whoever is taking Jeremy from her.
Jeremy decides to kill Hagemeyer for several reasons. Cronin, an underpaid Hungarian worker, is fired and then hangs himself rather than watch his wife and children go hungry. For taking part in solidarity meetings, Nick Brenner is beaten to a pulp and evicted from his home, one of Hagemeyer's tar-paper shanty houses. A Fourth of July protest march turns into a riot between mounted police and rock-throwing dissidents, with whom Jeremy sides. Following the march, a hired thug tries to kill him. Finally, when his supervisor threatens to harm Deborah, Jeremy borrows a gun from Brenner and plans to shoot Hagemeyer during a political gathering at Lawton where President Herbert Hoover will be endorsing the company owner in his bid for Congress.
Butler invents Nick Brenner and Effie Birney to advance a lesson about losing oneself in either a political or spiritual conversion. Brenner is taken in by Marxist rhetoric and jeopardizes his family's welfare. Discovering that his wife has taken their children and left town, he tells Jeremy: "A family's a corrupt idea anyway. Capitalism in four walls." Effie, similarly, rejects her mother and sisters to join the family of the Roman Catholic Church. Christ and the Virgin Mary sustain her in her masochism as, with a childlike dependency, she clutches to rituals to make her feel clean. Presented as weak, insecure people, Effie and Nick are usurped by organizations that purport to revere their individuality.
Critic Philip Beidler suggests in Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation (1991) that Butler's experimentation leads to "a fiction of brilliant doublings" in which "the renderings of the local and the immediate search out their larger mythic textualizations." In Wabash Deborah and Jeremy break from their struggles and picnic on Sun Mound, which is mentioned in The Alleys of Eden and which figures more prominently in Countrymen of Bones. Describing this and other examples as "mythic-cultural revision," Beidler sees in Butler's work "the archeology of culture at large, writing on the shared ground, the bone palimpsest of American myth itself."
Since 1985 Butler has made Lake Charles his home. In addition to teaching at McNeese, he has obtained funding from the Calcasieu Parish Arts and Humanities Council to initiate creative-writing classes for elementary, junior-high, and high-school students. On a continuing basis he contributes articles and reviews to The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, and he has participated as a faculty member in well-known programs such as the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, the Port Townsend Writers' Conference, and the Antioch Writers' Workshop. In 1987 he was a charter recipient of the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award given by the Vietnam Veterans of America for "outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran." Butler's second marriage ended in July 1987, and he gained full legal custody of his son. On 21 July 1987 he married Maureen Donlan, his present wife. While working on The Deuce (1989) Butler took advantage of his theater training and discovered that he could use a first-person voice to his satisfaction. The experiment "opened realms of my artistic unconscious," he said, "that were previously unaccessible to me."
The Deuce, Butler's sixth novel, is an extended monologue in which he adopts the persona of a seventeen-year-old Amerasian who recounts a lifetime of memories to unravel his identity. Referring to the challenge of writing within a culture other than one's own, Butler told David Streitfeld: "I know the Vietnamese people probably better than I knew most of the people I grew up with. But beyond that, it is an article of faith for the artist—that we can leap in our imaginations into the minds and hearts and souls of people quite different from ourselves."
Butler's narrator states in his opening line: "I wish it was simple just to say who I am, just to say my name is so-and-so and that makes you think of a certain kind of person and that would be me." Names are meaningful to him, and to this point in his life he has been Vo Dinh Thanh, Anthony "Tony" James Hatcher, and "the Deuce," each name representing a different identity. Born in 1968, Vo Dinh Thanh is the six-year-old son of a Saigon bar girl, Vo Xuan Nghi, and an American GI. When his mother brings her clients home to their soiled apartment, Thanh runs outside and blends in with the other "children of dust," for whom war has made life surreal. Nghi is about to collapse from years of selling herself for heroin; thus, when a familiar-looking dark-haired American man named Kenneth appears one afternoon in the spring of 1974, Thanh can feel his life is going to change.
Thanh is also Tony, son of Kenneth Hatcher, a Vietnam veteran and aspiring lawyer who comes to Saigon to reclaim his child. When Kenneth arrives and sees that Nghi is desperate, he buys Thanh from her and brings him to live in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. James Patrick Sloan (Chicago Tribune) mentions that instead of soldiers in dirty underwear teaching him English slang, Tony is introduced to "all the appurtenances of suburban life that have about as much meaning as a roomful of rocks from Mars." After Tony's first stepmother seeks a divorce, he and Kenneth try to normalize their relationship by arranging outings to Coney Island, Yankee Stadium, and the Bronx Zoo. One night when his father carelessly refers to Nghi as a "whore and a druggie," Tony steals a few hundred dollars and runs out.
Thanh-Tony is also a sixteen-year-old runaway hiding in New York City. Tony is beaten and robbed within hours of arriving at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He drifts, as a result, into weeks of panhandling with an alcoholic Vietnam veteran who calls him "the Deuce," the name locals use for Forty-second Street where the wrong people, Joey Cipriani warns him, will "eat you alive." Even though Tony claims to be 100 percent Vietnamese, Joey says, "You can't [b―sh―t] me. You're two things. You're Vietnamese and you're an American. A deuce."
Being half-Asian and half-American, the Deuce emerges as Butler's symbol for the collision of cultures that he finds so interesting about the Vietnam War and its aftermath. To make his point, he includes numerous details linking America to Vietnam when Tony runs away from his Jersey Shore home. Tony is sixteen when he sets out to be on his own; his mother was sixteen when she left Vinh Binh province and moved to Saigon. In New York City the Deuce loses his innocence to a sixteen-year-old runaway, Norma, who changes her name to Nicole and begins working the streets. Joey still carries a photograph of the Vietnamese prostitute with whom he fell in love sixteen years ago. On the afternoon the Deuce tracks Mr. Treen, a knife-wielding pederast, to a gay bar, he recoils when he sees a young mother sell her six-year-old boy for sexual favors in exchange for drugs. Forty-second Street, Joey notes, cuts through the city like the Mekong River, drowning the weak and disenfranchised.
Joey Cipriani is perhaps Butler's most tragic character. Claiming to be burdened by the legacies of civilian massacres and Agent Orange, Joey was, in truth, a personnel clerk who left South Vietnam before the Tet offensive of 1968. The war did not divest his life of meaning; Vietnam filled it with purpose. Kenneth tries to make this clear for his son after bringing him home from New York. He explains to Tony that some veterans like Joey have been disoriented after the war because
What Vietnam really was for them was the only time in their lives when you'd get up in the morning and see the sky really clearly or really appreciate a shower or a dry pair of socks. And not just the little things. It was the only time in their lives when every day you knew for sure that there's something very important at stake on the planet Earth, that issues of life and death and love and even eternity, heaven and hell, are all real, these things exist. You knew that, and you never forgot it for a second, and then you came home and all of that faded away.
Back in Point Pleasant the narrator compares himself to a cicada "burrowed by the root of a tree, waiting his long wait [seventeen years] to emerge one night and play out his life." Butler uses the extended metaphor of the cicada as his vehicle for issues about personal growth and change as Tony "drags himself free" of the identities others have created for him. He leaves again for New York to avenge Joey's murder and to find out what kind of person he is inside. After leading Mr. Treen to his death, he can say with confidence: "I'm a lot of things but I'm one thing, and I have no doubt about that. I'm the Deuce." Loyalty to his past and loyalty to his friend are at the heart of his moral vision as he comes of age in the decade following the Vietnam War.
When Butler was near the end of The Deuce, National Public Radio contacted him about contributing to its series, the Sound of Writing. He returned to the more than thirty stories he had previously written and found to his interest a Vietnamese folkway about Saigon boys staging fights between insects. He sat down one afternoon, took on the voice of a middle-aged Vietnamese man in Lake Charles trying to come to terms with his Americanized son, and six hours later he had produced "Crickets." Within a few days he had jotted down notes for twenty additional stories, and after contacting Allen Peacock, then his editor at Knopf, about the possibility of doing a collection, he spent the next fourteen months on A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
Butler's displaced Vietnamese live in places in Louisiana like Gretna, Lake Charles, Versailles, and New Orleans. Some are from North Vietnam and others are from South Vietnam; some are Buddhists, and others are Catholics; some have found America to be a land of plenty, and others eke out a living the best they can. Madison Smartt Bell (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 (Los Angeles Times Book Review) 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."
Having been a midlevel author, Butler told Peter Applebome about winning the Pulitzer Prize for his stories: "It came as a total surprise, something remarkable and wonderful that hit with the abruptness of a bolt of bayou lightning." The award lifted him considerably, leading to subsequent fellowships from the John Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He was made an honorary doctor of humane letters by McNeese State University in 1993, and in that year he also came under contract to Ixtlan, Oliver Stone's production company, to write a screenplay for A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. As demands for his time increased, Butler replaced his former Masonite lapboard with a notebook computer. Once again he was writing on the go, while flying between reading tours, book signings, and literary festivals.
His reputation secured, in They Whisper (1994) Butler set out to write a serious literary work about human sexuality. He had written sexual scenes into his previous novels, but They Whisper is devoted entirely to intimacy between women and men. Although confronted by difficulties in language and in what he had to face about himself, he said, "There was no other book I could have possibly written at that moment in my life. It was a book that was absolutely compelling." Like most writers, Butler pulls his subject matter from life experiences, but readers should guard against being lured into the biographical fallacy. He told Sybil Steinberg (Publishers Weekly): "[Carlos] Fuentes defines the novel as a pack of lies hounding the truth. This is a book full of the truest lies I can tell."
They Whisper is born of an image of a ten-year-old boy asking a young girl to wiggle her toes under the X-ray machine in his uncle's shoe store in Wabash, Illinois. This private moment of seeing Karen Granger's bones as no other person would ever see them is the first incident that Ira Holloway recalls in his being a lover of women. From this image Butler renders all he has learned about physically and spiritually connecting with life's unspoken sensual mysteries.
The novel is a stream-of-consciousness sojourn that takes place in 1980. Ira Holloway, now thirty-five, stands on a beach watching a parasailor glide over Puerto Vallarta. For the next 333 pages sensory impressions initiate sexual memories that span twenty-five years. In his mental flights to Wabash, New York, Zurich, Bangkok, and Saigon, he projects for each woman along the way a unique inner voice that whispers only to him of her secret desires and joys. Regardless of how intently he listens for their whispers, Ira says, "The answer of each woman does not prevent me from yearning. And it is the yearning I have to understand." From among Ira's many relationships, Butler makes his marriage to Fiona Price the crux of the narrative, demonstrating how love succumbs to obsession.
Soon after returning from Vietnam, Ira meets Fiona Price in New York's East Village. As their relationship evolves, she persuades him to speak about being attracted to other women, unwittingly establishing the groundwork for her ensuing jealousy. Within six months they are married, and while honeymooning in Paris, Ira learns that Fiona was sexually abused by her father, beginning on the night her parents' home caught on fire. Feeling her pain, he laments, "I would give up all my adult touching of Fiona to have held her sexlessly in my arms as a father just that once and cast the man from her life before he could scatter her mind and heart like sparks rising from the burning house." The morning after this secret revelation, Fiona insists that she must return to God if she is to survive.
Following the birth of their son, John, she begins attending Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church in Seaview, New York. Fiona wants Ira and John to share in her return to innocence, but the more insistent she becomes, the more they whisper behind her back. When his lawyer informs him that he would never gain legal custody of John should he seek a divorce, Ira decides he can either leave John with Fiona and allow her to create for their son a "terrible self," or he can stay and live two lives, "one to keep Fiona sane and one to whisper to my son all the things that I felt deeply were true." Presented as a sacrifice of his fullest sexual being, Ira forgoes his own happiness to safeguard his son, an attitude which Jane Smiley (The New York Times), Diane Johnson (Vogue), and Albert Read (Spectator), critics of Butler's sexual politics, perceive to be self-aggrandizing.
Fiona also suffers for her choices. Because she can intuit Ira's thoughts about other women, she needs constant reassurances that he yearns sexually only for her. As her doubts intensify, she becomes violent. Though she turns to psychiatry before the Catholic confessional, her religious zeal and escalating mistrust destroy Ira's longing for her, so when they are in bed, he fantasizes about being with other women. If he is too slow in getting an erection, Fiona is lost in envy; if they make love, she is overcome by shame and aches to confess. She wants more than anything for Ira and John to accept the church's sacraments as absolute truths. Should they not side with her, she thinks, then either they are right and she is a fool, or they are wrong and the husband and son she loves are going to hell. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (The New York Times) observes, "The whiteness of burning desire, the compulsion to purify by confessing, the desired purification of death: these themes weave and tangle and knot so intricately in They Whisper that against all common-sensical judgments you trace them to the novel's harrowing end."
Butler told Sybil Steinberg that he knew he wanted to become a writer when he was in Saigon. He said of wandering the streets and crouching in doorways at 2 a.m.: "This ravishingly sensual experience illuminated my future as an artist. I understood that what I knew about the world was demanding expression in a fully sensual, moment-to-moment way. I saw that fiction was the medium that would permit me to do this." With seven acclaimed novels in print, he has good reason for saying, "My rich and varied life has been deeply composted in my imagination." Butler intends to write a new book every eighteen months.
Source: Joe Nordgren, "Robert Olen Butler," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 173, American Novelists Since World War II, Fifth Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 3-13.
Ewell, Barbara C., Review of Tabloid Dreams: Stories, in America, May 17, 1997, pp. 28-29.
Smothers, Bonnie, "Uncommon Storytellers," in Booklist, October 1, 1886, p. 321.
Tait, Theo., Review of Tabloid Dreams: Stories, in the Times Literary Supplement, January 16, 1998, p. 1302.
Bird, S. Elizabeth, For Enquiring Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids, University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Bird's analysis is particularly interesting for its emphasis on the historical antecedents of the tabloid reporting that is popular in the early 2000s.
Glynn, Kevin, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television, Duke University Press, 2000.
A scholar from New Zealand, Glynn has an outsider perspective that helps Americans see the growing influence of tabloid newspapers and television shows as reflections of their contemporary life.
Sartisky, Michael, "Robert Olen Butler: A Pulitzer Profile," in The Future of Southern Writers, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 155-69.
This 1994 interview, recorded when Butler was still pigeonholed as a "Vietnam" writer, chronicles the author's jump from obscurity to fame with his Pulitzer Prize win the year before.
Schumock, Jim, "Robert Olen Butler," in Story Story Story: Conversations with American Authors, Black Heron Press, 1999, pp. 201-13.
This interview covers Butler's life up to the end of the century and includes a long discussion of the ideas behind Tabloid Dreams.
Trucks, Rob, "A Conversation with Robert Olen Butler," in The Pleasure of Influence: Conversations with American Male Fiction Writers, NotaBell Books, Purdue University Press, 2002, pp. 65-88.
As the title of Trucks' book implies, gender is a focal point in this interview. He does focus on the genesis of and the critical responses to Tabloid Dreams.
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