It’s been 45 years since Robert Olen Butler returned from Vietnam as an Army translator and 23 since he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” stories of Vietnamese immigrants in America. Although his work has explored that war a number of times, his new novel, “Perfume River,” delivers his most reflective view of it.
The story follows two brothers, Robert and Jimmy Quinlan, estranged for nearly five decades by their father’s incurable disappointment.
Everyone circles the Quinlan family’s destruction, which began when Robert accepted military service to earn his father’s respect and Jimmy rejected it, protesting the war all the way to exile in Canada. Unrelated to them but braiding himself into their history is Bob, quickly sliding into madness, the homeless son of a long dead Vietnam veteran. They are all being pitched toward intersection. The past is ever in the moment.
The father, haunted by his part in World War II, calls Vietnam the “national embarrassment,” and their family severs in “an era of militant gentleness, judgmental tolerance.” Robert remains resentfully dutiful, but Jimmy is gone.
There is great narrative efficiency in the prose, with sentences often spare and matched by constrained dialogue. This is writing harvested from a certain age, the point where people have lived in themselves long enough to stop talking so much, making conversation with little more than body language and breathing.
“They fall silent. But they do not immediately hang up. They aren’t good at ending phone calls. They both hate phones, in fact. They can’t read each other’s body or face, which is crucial to them, to inflect their silences.”
Butler explored failing marriages in “A Small Hotel” (2011), but this novel really captures the fatigue of couples emptied of passion and less bound by vows than by habit. The mother orbits the collapsing father, and has always done so, trying to gather her children. Robert’s wife is a self-sufficient fixture first drawn to him by the mystery of the stories he still has not told. And Jimmy has an open marriage with a woman who is growing away from him, their union formed in peace marches and now kept only by familiarity. These characters are often opening their eyes, waking, seeing, thinking and then trying to return to sleep. Their nights are restless. They drink cups of coffee and tea, sort the evidence, weigh their words. They keep saying they understand. And they really try to.
But can these women rescue these men, and why is so much of the burden on their devotion? “In her growing fidelity to Robert Quinlan, when he dreams and awakens to his guilt, to his shame, how is she to help him?” his wife wonders. “He has already done whatever it is he has done.”
This is a large line. How will people feel when they learn our secrets? Isn’t that why we keep them? The author’s gift to us is omniscience. We know what isn’t said, and we share the dread of everyone’s confessions. Vietnam itself plays a very small part, the specter of terror and yearning belittling the rest of Robert’s life. His Vietnamese lover drifts into these memories, the magic of his romance with her impossible to re-create since her disappearance. He keeps her a secret, too, her nation becoming dreamscape. “Perfume River” and its flow of fallen blossoms bring Robert back to the city of Hue as if time has not passed, as if he were still young, and that is the tragedy of this book. He is gray and mortal and aware. Everything seems to be ending, and there is nothing left to begin.
This is such a quiet novel — domestic, nostalgic, built on caution and patience, with wars seeping underneath. At times, the writing is hallucinatory, the narration shifting between three men who are swimming in the present and submerged in the past. There is a section two-thirds through where we go into the mind of the dying father, a single remembrance from combat in Europe, and it breaks into a sentence that is two pages long and so staggeringly good it turns the book bright.
Butler is writing almost as an apparition, exposing our later years, urging us to say what we mean in the few brief opportunities we have. He gets the aftermath of a parent’s death right, the strange gyre of it, the way we can only complete small tasks, one after the other. His characters wander, they sit, and they miss connections to themselves.
In a sense, this is an augury from an old generation, a warning to their progeny that the space between enchantment and mortality can lose all of its volume. The past is given the most sensory description, memory somehow more beautiful than the present, the traces of youth more fascinating than the wisdom gained by age.
We have to wonder where loyalty makes its demands. What do we owe the dead? What do we owe a nation? Can we leave a family and country, disregard our name, and truly never return? Are we ourselves or always a part of another identity? It’s also a discussion about our impulsive sense of what cowardice and bravery really mean.
The story builds its force with great care, though the end is a bit hurried, everyone conveniently arranged for collision. Its power is that we want to keep reading. The entire journey is masterfully rendered, Butler lighting a path back into the cave, completely unafraid.
Benjamin Busch is the author of “Dust to Dust.”
By Robert Olen Butler
Grove/Atlantic. 273 pp. $25