HAD A GOOD TIME

Stories From American Postcards

By Robert Olen Butler. Grove. 267 pp. $23 Several years ago, in a stimulating essay called "The Reanimators," Jonathan Dee complained about the increasingly common "practice of conscripting flesh-and-blood people into novels" -- books that are supposed to be, after all, products of imagination. Robert Olen Butler's new short story collection, Had a Good Time, is full of real-life characters, but they are so unfamous and imagined from such motes -- the brief messages they once wrote on the antique postcards the author likes to collect -- that it seems unlikely even Dee could raise an objection.

Detractors will call Butler's premise a gimmick, admirers a conceit; either way, the challenge to the writer is formidable. Of all forms of letter-writing, the picture postcard demands the least originality and detail from the person composing it. Indeed, Butler cheats a bit, several times using cards whose front-side images are not mass-produced shots of some tourist spot but particular photographs taken by the sender: The message in these cases can amount to a caption.

Even so, Butler is applying the bellows of invention to very tiny sparks. For example: "Well I got married to Milk Can and we are now on our honey moon. Mr. Watt is here and he looks stunning. Katie." Over the next 14 pages Milk Can will turn out to be -- whatever he may have been in real life -- a prosperous dairy farmer that Butler names Clarence Trimble; Watt will blaze up into a romantic Ashcan-School painter who tempts Katie to bolt from her new marriage.

Eight years ago, Butler published another high-concept collection called Tabloid Dreams, using zany downmarket headlines as the basis for some wildly imaginative extrapolations. The stories in Had a Good Time don't rise to the same bravura heights, but the results are a consistently entertaining display of this Pulitzer prizewinner's varied skills. The strongest recurring theme of the new book is premature death -- from disease, despair, accident. In "Carl and I," a distraught wife seeks to share the fate of her husband, dying of tuberculosis, via contact with his sputum-stained handkerchief: "I expose the remnants of his tortured breath and I lift it to my face. And I breathe in, deeply." The collection's first story, "Hotel Touraine," a kind of cross between Horatio Alger and John O'Hara, centers on a Boston bellboy who drops the chip on his shoulder about a monied guest only when a sudden decline in fortune makes the guest jump out of his eighth-floor room. Even "Sunday," whose postcard genesis is a happy picture of Coney Island swimmers, turns out to be anything but a day at the beach: Its 48-year-old protagonist, full of tender feelings toward his mother and wife, dies on the sand from a heart attack.

There is, to be sure, some comedy in the collection, including "Up by Heart," whose Tennessee miner-turned-preacher, Hurshel Hudgens, sees his new career come to a quick end after two visitations from the Stetson-wearing Lord. (The second encounter is sufficiently unpleasant that Hurshel kicks the deity in a sensitive spot.) Among the most charming pieces is "The Ironworkers' Hayride," in which Butler seems to rewrite a famous bit of Flannery O'Connor in the spirit of Booth Tarkington by having a shy company accountant work up the courage to touch the artificial limb of his pretty date -- only to be told, "Just for future reference, Milton. It's the other leg."

As was the case in Tabloid Dreams, all of these stories are told in the first person, but Butler rarely settles for impressing us with his range of vocal effects. He favors strong plots and strong twists. "Hiram the Desperado" would work well enough as the comic monologue of a lovesick schoolboy roughneck, but the author turns the piece into a sad version of Ring Lardner's famous "Haircut," in which readers will realize the awful truth of an incident that the narrator, their only source of information, has badly misapprehended. Butler's surprise endings can be tender -- a mother who manages to visit the trenches of the Western Front finds her son in less need of her affections than the shattered officer who goes to fetch him -- and they can be brutal: Rather than pass up the chance to enter America, one sister lets her beloved twin return home to Ireland, alone, to die of the trachoma that's been diagnosed on Ellis Island.

Not all the stories succeed. "The Grotto," for example, about a Southern woman's panicky but enlarging encounter with a local Egyptian guide, is mostly an E.M. Forster setup without a Forsterian follow-through. Also, in a handful of places, Butler's diction ("hunting buddy," "a structured, managed break") seems to time-travel forward from his circa-1910 settings. Still, the author more than satisfies us with the book's tonal variety and unexpected linkages. Halley's comet flies through it as a motif, and the Singer Building looms over more than one story as a totem of modernity -- though one doubts that Americans of 1910 were so often self-conscious about the "new century" they were living in.

Between stories, the author intersperses human-interest newspaper items, all of them culled from (or skillfully invented to sound like?) August 1910. There's occasionally a connection between the clippings and the stories, but more often than not one can't discern any. The news items confuse the issue here, but perhaps they signal Butler's warm-up for another collection whose concept will be as high as some of the pleasures afforded by this one. *

Thomas Mallon's most recent novels are "Two Moons" and "Bandbox."