Review of A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/26/05
I had heard the name Robert Olen Butler before, mentioned as a Southern writer, which generally connotes a certain way of approaching writing- especially short stories. But, it was as a novelist that I heard his name, this time and the people mentioning his name were not enamored of his novelry. Yet, all claimed that his short fiction was far superior. Back to the connotation. You know it. There are vastly overrated short story writers from the south. William Faulknerís short stories are filled with stereotypes and leaden plots, and typify what is called Southern Grotesque. Then thereís Flannery OíConnor, whose short stories make Faulknerís seem like a breeze, and whose Grotesques embody the term. Then thereís Eudora Weltyís stiflingly rigid, claustrophobic, unpoetic, hit and miss tales of too much of nothing.
So, when I heard Butlerís novels ripped and short stories praised I was skeptical, especially considering that the book my wife got from her mother, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, was a Pulitzer Prize winner from 1993. Fortunately, I was wrong. While the book is not Pulitzer material, in my opinion, it is still head and shoulders above the crap published today, and certainly better than anything Faulkner, OíConnor, or Welty wrote (at least that Iíve read of theirs). His stories are about Vietnamese immigrants who settle in the Lake Charles area of Louisiana and range from horrendous to great. Even in the lesser tales there are moments of greatness, but also signs of the opposite tendency- mundanity, mostly brought on by overwriting, in length and sometimes needlessly repetitious filler.
Open Arms is the first story- a rather pedestrian tale of Vietnam intrigue carried over to the new country. Fortunately itís not too long. Mr. Green is a funny and poignant tale about a woman, her parrot, and her past. After the first story I was glad this story was so good, because had it not been Iídíve known I was in real trouble. The Trip Back follows a man and his grandfather-in-law on a car ride from Houstonís airport to his town in Louisiana. It is the best tale yet- very moving, as the old man can barely recall his granddaughter, nor much of his past, and has a good end. At fourteen pages itís about the perfect length for real exposition of character, without needing to bring in other elements. By this point I was thinking Butler was going to be a nice surprise from the dismal norm of prose writing nowadays.
Then I read Fairy Tale- an absolutely atrocious story, written from the point of view of a sucky-sucky FOB female Vietnamese that not only indulges in a stereotype (with no undercutting of it) but is written in the clipped racist dialect of an Oriental patois. Perhaps Butler thought that the taleís title would mitigate the pieceís egregious nature, but it does not. Itís an amazingly bad story in every way, but all the more stunningly bad considering its company. Crickets, on the other hand, is a delightful short tale in the father-son relationship genre. Letters From My Father, is another good tale about an American fatherís attempts to bring his child over from Vietnam.
Perhaps the best story in the book is Love, in that it is touching, insightful, and laugh out loud funny, about a husbandís attempt at vengeance on his wife and lover using voodoo. Mid-Autumn is a tearjerker, but in the best sense of the term- a very good story, and taut at a mere six pages. In The Clearing is another brief, sweet story. A Ghost Story is rather blasť, the quirky sort of tale that might make a good Akira Kurosawa short film. As a story there are moments, but itís still predictable. Snow is a tale that is mediocre.
Relic is a tale with promise, about a man who claims to own one of the shoes John Lennon was wearing when he was shot to death, yet it ends poorly. Preparation, about two former friends reunited- one dead, one alive- is another good tale, especially on the heels of some of the lesser stories it follows. The American Couple is, after Fairy Tale, the worst in the book, mainly because itís the longest, at 80 pages, and follows two American couples- one white and one Vietnamese- in Mexico. Not much occurs in all its pages.
The book then ends with the titular A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, another good story with a weak end, that follows an old man and his reminiscences about Ho Chi Minh. At his best Butler gets inside a foreign identity, while at his worst he utterly fails, as in Fairy Tale. Yet, most of the characters are very human, and relatable. That Butler can touch on similar themes in such dissimilar ways shows that he is a true artist with the pen. It will be interesting to see if his other short works of fiction are of as high in overall quality, however erratic, and if the consensus about his longer fiction being far inferior is also true. Nonetheless, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain is far above most short stories being published. Read it, and learn.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 6/05 Hackwriters website.]
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