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Memphis Flyer The Devils of "The Deep Green Sea"

By James Busbee

MARCH 2, 1998:  Robert Olen Butler is a writer who has the kind of deserved success other writers can admire. Butler soldiered through the unrewarding trenches of literary publishing for years, writing a dozen novels – half unpublished – before 1993, when his short-story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1996, he published another collection, Tabloid Dreams, one of the best books of that year. Now comes The Deep Green Sea, a work of elegance and beauty that combines several of Butler’s favorite themes – Vietnam, loss, and humans’ desperate yearning for connection and meaning.

The novel, set in the streets of present-day Saigon, brings together a former Vietnam soldier and a young woman born in the midst of the war. Former serviceman Benjamin Cole, an itinerant trucker fleeing a dead, loveless marriage, returns to the alleys of Saigon nearly 30 years after his time in country. There he finds Le Thi Tien, a daughter of the war and now a tourist guide, showing visitors the blasted relics of war. In one another, Benjamin and Tien find their missing piece, a wholeness that seems too perfect to be true – and is. The story hinges on a somewhat too convenient coincidence, but nonetheless spirals to a final tragedy worthy of Greek drama.

The grace and complexity with which Butler draws his two characters is impressive. Tien’s attempt to reconcile her new love with her cultural taboos is heartbreaking; Ben’s desperate need to close the open ends of his life is haunting.

“For Christ’s sake, to be able to start again from a place where there’s nothing to remember, nothing to ask about, nothing but what’s there for both of you right in that moment, without any history at all, that’s almost too good to be true,” Ben says upon first meeting Tien. Outside Tien’s window, Vietnamese are “going around and around all night on their motorcycles, a bunch of them maybe guys who 20 years ago were in the business of killing Americans. And she tells me that there is no past at all and she wants me and I feel like I’m going to goddamn cry.”

The book doesn’t have chapters. Instead, it alternates between the perspectives of Tien and Ben. The transitions are smooth, the voices unmistakable. “Fiction is the art form of human yearning,” Butler says. “The thing I sensed about these characters most strongly was their yearning. I had two characters who pretty much presented themselves to me at the same moment, entwined as they are, and so it was the obvious stylistic choice to make.”

Robert Olen Butler
Butler, now a professor of creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, served in Vietnam himself. But from the moment he arrived there, Butler, who served as a military translator, had experiences different from most of his fellow Americans. “I spoke the language fluently from my first day in country,” he says. “In Saigon, I lived in an old French hotel, and I loved to wander the back alleys of Saigon almost every night.”

More than two decades later, Butler also returned to Vietnam. His love for the country had not dimmed. “One of the things that appeals to me about the Vietnamese is their sense of myth and storytelling,” Butler says. “There’s an acute consciousness of the duality of life in its sensual particularities and in an ongoing sense of a spirit world.”

“The children who were clearly the sons and daughters of Americans were difficult for us all to understand after the nation was made one,” says Tien, herself the daughter of an American soldier and a Saigon prostitute. “I could keep my American self hidden because it never really existed. It died with my father even before I was born.… His blood was spilled before I was born and it spilled from me as well, even in my mother’s womb. His blood was gone. But did my mother’s blood fill me in its place? Or am I half a cup full?”

Since much of Butler’s work, including A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, takes place in Vietnam or involves Vietnamese people, critics have a tendency to call him a “Vietnam writer,” much like Faulkner is a “Southern writer.” “I’m a Vietnam novelist in the way Monet is a lily-pad painter,” Butler laughs. “For me, Vietnam is simply a metaphor in which I’m able to explore the human condition. Whatever Americans’ attitudes are about Vietnam, historically or politically, are of no consequence to me or my writing.”

Still, he confesses some displeasure at the way America has seemed to reconcile itself with the Vietnam War. “We as a nation are real good winners and pretty awful losers,” he says. “Many people are anxious not to even remember it anymore, or reduce it to a crude and simplistic level, like losing the Super Bowl, and that’s too bad.”

Newfound recognition in the wake of the Pulitzer has altered Butler’s professional life, and he now spends months at a time on extended literary tours. As a result, he spends one semester in class, working closely with his students; the next, he spends on book tours, requiring his students to work on their own.

And he’s a demanding professor. “Art does not come from the mind, it does not come from the rational faculties. Art comes from the place where you dream, from your unconscious. If you have a story that is created from the wrong place – in the writer’s head instead of the unconscious – no amount of rewriting or editing or revising is ever going to fix that.”

Fundamentally, Butler believes writing is about courage. “To write, you have to have the courage to go into your unconscious, into the place that is white-hot in the very center of you, and not flinch. That’s why everybody writes from their head, because it’s much safer, much easier that way.”

The courage has paid off. Tabloid Dreams has been optioned by HBO for development as a miniseries. The Deep Green Sea should solidify Butler’s standing at the forefront of contemporary American literature. Butler’s days of literary obscurity just might be through for good.

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