“Perfume River: A Novel”
Author: Robert Olen Butler
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Price: $25.00 (Hardcover)
“Perfume River” is, pardon the pun, a confluence of several themes that Robert Olen Butler, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” has explored in previous works and is as smart and eloquent as anything he’s done before.
Set in 2014, some of the themes are timeless: for example, the difficulty of communication between husband and wife, no matter how well-intentioned the parties are; and the fraught relationship between father and son, which was a problem in Sophocles’ day—as he demonstrated in “Oedipus Rex”—and is still with us.
More recently, Butler has explored the effects of America’s wars, which seem to have the half-life of plutonium, on American society, our families, especially on wives.
In “Perfume River,” Robert and Jimmy Quinlan are brothers, sons of William Quinlan.
William served with Patton’s army in Europe in WWII and, like many in his generation, never spoke about his experiences.
When the late sixties roll around, with William in his late eighties, and America increasingly committed to the war in Vietnam, William’s love-it-or-leave-it patriotism becomes more powerful than ever.
Jimmy will join the anti-war movement and move to Canada permanently, his life changed forever by this act of cowardice or bravery, depending on whom you ask. The estrangement from his father and, as collateral damage, from his mother and brother, is nearly as perfect as human stubbornness can make it. There is no contact for 46 years.
Robert joins the Army in 1967 and serves in Vietnam, thinking to win Dad’s approval. Robert, like Robert Olen Butler himself, becomes fluent in Vietnamese and works in counterintelligence, presumably safe from the worst of it.
But what is stated explicitly in the U.S. Marines, “every Marine a rifleman,” is just as true in the Army in a war like the Vietnamese War, as Robert will discover. He will carry home his own internal pocket of stress.
Both Robert and Jimmy marry, it seems successfully.
Jimmy and his wife, Mavis, living north of Toronto, have a marriage straight out of the sixties. She especially is the living embodiment of “militant gentleness, judgmental tolerance.” Paradox shines through her. Also, they have agreed, each will always be free to pursue love elsewhere as the occasions arise.
Was this ever a good idea?
The arrangements of Robert’s marriage are more subtle.
In the opening of “Perfume River,” Robert, now a history professor at FSU, and his wife, Darla, are eating in the New Leaf Co-op. His mind wanders then he remembers: they were “feebly arguing,” but about what? It comes to him: the virtues of quinoa.
Darla, once a rabid anti-war activist, is now a semiotician, a professional student of meaning and meticulous interpreter of all messages, from road signs to the written word to statues in the park, a committed morning runner, and beyond politically correct. “She is known for her book ‘Public Monuments as Found Art: A Semiotic Revisioning.’” And lately she has been working on “Dead Soldiers and Sexual Longing: The Subtexts and Sculptural Tropes of the Daughters of the Confederacy Monuments.”
In its own way, this too is a study of the effects of war on the home front, on the survivors, mainly women. These Confederate widows were women whose husbands were “savaged and broken and traumatized and distorted by war.” Darla realizes “that she is herself part of just such a generation of women.”
Robert understands Darla very well, and has become sensitized, as long-time husbands can be, as to what to say and when to keep silent. He does not speak of Vietnam.
It is always a blessing that we cannot read one another’s minds.
The two relationships are in stasis until the action is moved by William’s life-threatening fall and broken hip and the arrival in Robert’s life of Bob, a mentally ill homeless man with a PTSD-damaged father of his own. Bob hears voices, and is constant threat to himself and others.
William’s fall and hospitalization serve as catalyst and the characters, apart geographically or emotionally for decades, will have to come together, deal with changes, maybe make a new start, maybe heal and get better.
This novel is rich in characterization, elegantly written and smart. Butler has lately been writing suspense novels and “Perfume River” holds the reader tight as the action moves to its conclusion.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.