By Robert Olen Butler
Grove. 223 pp. $23
Reviewed by Kit Reed
Imagine a cosmic messenger with the bug eyes and bland, upturned grin of the ubiquitous American smiley face, a loose grip on American vernacular and a mission to change the world. Well, if not change it, then at least issue a warning. The alien in Robert Olen Butler's new novel, Mr. Spaceman, has come to Earth to say some of the same things Klaatu did in the '50s camp classic movie "The Day The Earth Stood Still" -- but with a difference.
When Michael Rennie stepped out of that flying saucer, he was handsome and dignified, elegant in silver. Butler's emissary is considerably less impressive. The genial Desi descends to Earth in a trench coat to hide his physical anomalies and pads along in size-20 athletic shoes. Instead of manifesting in metropolitan centers, he skims rural America, touching down in supermarket parking lots and outside schlocky discount stores, picking up ordinary citizens for scrutiny. He even marries one. "My wife Edna Bradshaw" keeps house and whips up trailer-trash delicacies for her husband's captives.
Desi, who first appeared in Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, is charming, clumsy and unprepossessing. Although he's spent the better part of the 20th century listening, he thinks in jargon, buzzwords and slogans yanked out of the ether of American culture. His greeting? "I am a friendly guy." And he's just beamed up a bus full of people headed for a casino so he can absorb their memories and speech patterns while they are sleeping.
This is intransigent stuff for a serious novelist. With a narrator from outer space riding in on an old story, a writer with a literary reputation runs the risk of looking silly. The triumph is that Butler has brought his own lyric prose and quirky vision to a hoary premise and created a lovely and thoughtful tribute to the nature and power of the word. Mr. Spaceman is intelligent, funny and enormously likable.
Apparently the last survivor of his expedition, Desi has spent the century collecting people from every era of middle-American history, storing monologues to study as he figures out what, exactly, he's supposed to say to us. As he spins out the last days before the millennium, he replays their stories -- American-made, down-home earthy, sometimes angry, sometimes passionate.
Words preoccupy him, words inform him, and in the end he is changed by the words he absorbs, stories of the monologuists he's captured, from the woman who envied the Wright Brothers to Lucky, the hip American Vietnamese, to the goofy, born-again hippie who convinces herself -- and some of the folks from the waylaid bus -- that Desi is the vessel for the Second Coming.
"And though I have no telepathy with my visitors," he says, "after they have spoken, I have the power to recall their voices . . . to become the speakers. And I do this so that I might listen for the hidden music -- a very difficult task, since the instrument of these voices is plucked only on the thin strings of words -- but I listen very closely to the voices, straining to hear in them the song of the ethos, so I may know." Desi needs to know, he tells us, to fulfill his mission. At the crack of the millennium, "I have been charged to find an appropriately public place and to make my vessel visible and then to descend from it in my true self and thus reveal to all the inhabitants of this planet this great and fundamental truth of the cosmos."
The truth? Desi isn't sure. In a way, Butler's novel is a sober exploration of the possibilities. Not that he doesn't have considerable fun along the way. Armed with recipes, down-to-earth Edna Bradshaw grounds Desi when he gets too meditative and reminds him of his hostly duties; and when his captives wake up, the scenes they play are masterpieces of comic timing.
Throughout, Butler keeps a neat balance between story and reflection, dropping Desi on Earth on a near-disastrous foray and then bringing him back to the ship just in time for Edna's Last Supper, at which expectations are overturned and Butler demonstrates that even old stories are fresh when the right person tells them.
Kit Reed's most recent book is "Seven for the Apocalypse." Her new novel, "@expectations," will be out in September.