Anyone who knows a bit about Robert Olen Butler’s life might take his new novel, “Perfume River,” as a lightly fictionalized autobiography. After all, Butler shares a first name with his protagonist, and both served in non-combat roles in the Vietnam War. Both are 70 years old, give or take. Both are professors at Florida State University.
Such an assumption would be in error. While Butler may revisit Vietnam-era themes from earlier books (“The Alleys of Eden,” “On Distant Ground,” “The Deep Green Sea” or the Pulitzer-winning “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain”), this novel stands apart as the story of a Florida family still fractured by the wounds of a war 40 years gone.
Aging Vietnam veteran Robert Quinlin is a professor of history at Florida State University, where his wife Darla is a distinguished art scholar. The pair met long ago when an anti-war protest Darla took part in marched past the New Orleans sidewalk café where Robert, a veteran, sat drinking coffee. Now, approaching old age, intimacy remains, but passion has dwindled into something wintery and remote.
Robert’s decision to enlist came from a deep need to please his father, William, a conservative blue-collar combat veteran of World War II. Volunteering gives Robert the right to choose his assignment, and he chooses a “safe” one, far from the jungle. By contrast, his once-beloved brother, Jimmy, defies William, concluding the old man will never grant love or approval to anyone, and flees with his hippie girlfriend to Canada, where he cuts off contact with his family.
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No synopsis can convey the deceptive richness of Butler’s storytelling. The writing style, precise and beautiful, discloses more than the simple surface action of any one passage. Secondary characters — Darla, or Jimmy’s free-love wife Linda, or Robert’s mother, Peggy, put-upon but emotionally dishonest, or Lien, the young Vietnamese woman who was Robert’s first and never-to-be-matched love — are given almost equal place with Robert.
Butler moves seamlessly between points of view, sometimes within the same paragraph. This risky strategy allows characters to share the secrets they keep from their closest loved ones. Peacenik Darla never tells Robert how turned on she was when she thought he was a killer, or how she never regained that carnal spark once she learned he served as a clerk. Robert hides his one shaming encounter with violence in Vietnam.
By the time the 89-year-old William suddenly dies, we know the principle secrets of the principle characters, their shame, fear, and anxiety. Butler’s deftly slip-sliding narrative even ranges back to World War II, and the bleeding regret, the source of his brutal treatment of his sons, that William takes to the grave.
The presence of another Robert in the novel, a semi-deranged homeless man who goes by “Bob,” might strike some readers as extraneous or a distraction or a mere device. But with his own backstory of a father more psychologically wounded than either Robert or William, Bob serves as Robert’s shadow, the doppelganger Robert might have become had things gone only a little harder for him. In Bob, Butler greatly enlarges our sense of what the Vietnam War cost to a generation.
Ultimately, that’s the theme of this quietly bristling book, the personal price paid by three generations for the decision to go to war. Good war, bad war, the levy is exacted all the same. Neither pro nor anti war, “Perfume River” tells a human story that sums up in an entire era of American life.
Chauncey Mabe is a writer in Miami.