BOONE—Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has written 16 novels and six volumes of short fiction. He describes “Perfume River,” his latest novel, as “the best book I’ve ever written.” There are likely many reasons.
Butler provided an intriguing reason recently during a break in a 40-city tour to promote “Perfume River,” from which he’ll read Thursday, Nov. 10, during his appearance in the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series at Appalachian State University.
“It has encompassed more strata of that compost heap than ever before,” he said.
To explain what that meant, Butler invoked a philosophy of Graham Greene (1904-1991), the famed British novelist.
“All good novelists have bad memories,” Butler said, paraphrasing Greene. “What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.”
In “Perfume River,” Butler returns to “compost” that has proved particularly fertile for him in the past: the effects of the Vietnam War. He knows that conflict intimately, having served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1971. His fluency in Vietnamese won him posts as a counter-intelligence special agent and as a translator.
What he remembers today is “falling madly in love” with the culture, place and people of Vietnam. What he has forgotten transformed into compost imaginative enough to yield Vietnam War-related stories told from different points of view. For example, in “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993, Butler explores different aspects of the Vietnam War and other issues through several stories, each narrated by a different Vietnamese settler in Louisiana.
“Perfume River,” by contrast, illuminates the effects of the Vietnam War on several generations of an American family from New Orleans. It takes place in 2015, about 40 years after the Vietnam War ended. Robert Quinlan, 70, a history teacher at Florida State University (where Butler teaches), is estranged from his brother, Jimmy, who is 68. That’s because Robert fought in Vietnam to please his father, William, enlisting in 1967, while Jimmy fled to Canada because he couldn’t abide his father or the conflict.
“Close to 50 years later, in 2015, William is on his death bed and the estrangements in the family are tested,” Michael Upchurch wrote in a New York Times review. “Can Jimmy, who has stayed incommunicado all these years, really keep away? Are there any filial connections left to work with?”
Dr. Sarah-Beth Hopton, an assistant professor of technical and professional writing in Appalachian’s Department of English, recommended Butler for the series.
“What I love about (‘Perfume River’) is that it spans a half-century and demonstrates how the past is always with us, but can also be transcended, and how mortality shapes the decisions we make. We then spend the rest of our lives learning to live with those decisions,” she said.
Upchurch observed that “Perfume River” ranges widely in time and setting to trace the effects of war.
“Butler’s Faulknerian shuttling back and forth across the decades has less to do with literary pyrotechnics than with cutting to the chase,” he wrote, adding that the book “hits its marks with a high-stakes intensity.”
Hopton echoed this view.
“As a reader who believes in the civilizing value of literature, I appreciate that Robert Olen Butler has seen the story of the Vietnam veteran and his family through to its bitter end,” she said. “There are many stories about the Vietnam veteran, but rather few of them give equal time to the warrior and his family.
“War doesn’t just happen to the warrior. War is carried home and the experiences of war … stretch and spread, ensnare, and sometimes strangle the lifeblood of a family, however you define family or tribe.”
Remaining Series Details
On Nov. 10, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer Robert Olen Butler will make his series presentations. From 2 to 3:15 p.m., he will offer a craft talk titled “What is Art and How Do You Write It?” in Room 201B (Table Rock Room) of the Plemmons Student Union. He will read from “Perfume River” the same evening at 7:30 in the same location. Book sales and signing will follow each event.
All series events are free and open to the public.
About the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series
The Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series is named in honor of Hughlene Bostian Frank ’68, a 2013 Appalachian Alumni Association Outstanding Service award recipient, past member of Appalachian’s Board of Trustees, current board member of the Appalachian State University Foundation, and generous supporter of Appalachian State University.
The Fall 2016 Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series is supported by the Appalachian State University Foundation Inc., Appalachian’s Office of Academic Affairs, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English, Office of Multicultural Student Development, University Bookstore, Belk Library and Information Commons, and the Appalachian Journal.
Business sponsors are The Gideon Ridge Inn, The Red Onion Restaurant and The New Public House & Hotel. Community sponsors include John and the late Margie Idol, Paul and Judy Tobin, Alice Naylor and Thomas McLaughlin.
For additional information about the series, visit http://visitingwriters.appstate.edu.
About Appalachian State University
Appalachian State University, in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The transformational Appalachian experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and embrace diversity and difference. As one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina system, Appalachian enrolls about 19,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.