Robert Olan Butler

Robert Olan Butler
Robert Olen Butler, Jr., was born January 20, 1945, and grew up in Granite City, Illinois, a steel town near St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Robert Olen Butler, Sr., was chair of the theater department at St. Louis University, and his mother, Lucille Hall Butler, an executive secretary. Butler graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in oral interpretation. He went on to the University of Iowa, receiving his M.A. in playwriting in 1969. While in Iowa, he married, and then divorced Carol Supplee. When Butler finished graduate school he enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to Military Intelligence, given intensive training in the Vietnamese language, and sent to Vietnam. Butler?s ?professional proficiency? was gained in a year?s immersion course, taught by a Vietnamese exile who also gave him insight into the Vietnamese culture and the struggles of an exile. His tour of duty was served in Saigon until 1972. It is felt by many that his war time training and experiences deeply influenced his life, writing, and thinking. In July 1972, he married the poet Marilyn Geller and worked as an editor and reporter in New York City for a year. When his wife became pregnant with their son, Joshua, the family moved back to Illinois. Butler taught as a substitute in his hometown of Granite City in 1973 and 1974, then became a reporter in Chicago.
He moved back to the New York City area in 1975 and took a job as editor-in-chief of Energy User News, an investigative newspaper he created. According to Butler, every word of his first four published novels was written on a legal pad, by hand, on his lap, on the Long Island Railroad as he commuted back and forth from Sea Cliff to Manhattan. In 1985, Butler assumed an assistant professorship at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Louisiana is home to several Vietnamese communities, and the Louisiana Vietnamese provided Butler with material for his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Butler once said that he finds that much fiction about Vietnam fails to portray the Vietnamese people with sufficient depth, perhaps because it focuses more on the military action. His early work is dominated by the ?Vietnam trilogy,? novels in which a minor character in one shows up as a major character in another. Divorced from Marilyn Geller, Butler married twice more while living in Lake Charles, to Maureen Donlan then to the novelist Elizabeth Dewberry. Additionally, he was a charter recipient, along with only three other fiction writers, of the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award given by the Vietnam Veterans of America for ?outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran.? Butler taught creative writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, from 1985 to 2000, where he has been Eppes Professor of Creative writing at Florida State University ever since. A lot of people categorize Butler as a writer of Vietnam stories, but he dislikes it saying he is writing about the people, not the place. In his story ?Snow?, he tells about a Vietnamese woman working in a diner, and meets a Jewish man who has come in for some dinner. In his story ?Missing?, he writes about an American soldier that has been living among a Vietnamese village, who has been photographed by a reporter, and published in an American newspaper. In his essay, Carl L. Bankston, iii, states that ?Butler?s background in theater may be the reason his work seems sometimes excessively staged and self-consciously tragic?. I guess perhaps it could be seen that way, but maybe there are other reasons for the way his works are written. I would think that his works are so ?excessively staged and self- consciously tragic? because of the things he saw during his time in Vietnam, and the life he had to lead while serving his country. Maybe they stories seem like that because it is how that particular reader feels when reading it. I agree with Ann Davison Garbett when she observes, ?Butler has great sympathy for these displaced persons-for their sensitivity, the rich culture they left behind, and their hardships in America. He treats all of them, from the Saigon ?bar girl? to the newly successful businessman, with respect?. You can see in his work that he does not down grade or criticize the Vietnamese people or culture, he simply observes it and enlightens the rest of us about things we may not know or realize. I found it hard to stop reading his stories, no matter how tired I was, even though I do not find myself interested in the whole ?Vietnam? thing. Mainly, I think, because Butler writes about the people, not the place. In ?Snow? I found it strange to start with her waking to find him staring at her, it really makes you think about the possibilities the story could have. We learn that Miss Giau is a Vietnamese woman, and that the man, Mr. Cohen, is Jewish. He asks her about a bad dream she had on his last visit, and we learn that the first time she saw snow it frightened her, made her think of death. Then we find out that Mr. Cohen also relates death with snow from when he was younger and his family had to separate. They are transplants, have come here with their mothers, and have both settled in the same partof America. The time is set at Christmas and Miss Giau cannot understand that he does not celebrate the holiday, she thought all Americans did. The Vietnamese celebrate all holidays that come, so this is strange to her. They talk on several occasions and Mr. Cohen asks to call on Miss Giau, they go out for dinner on New Year?s Eve. This is the end of the story but you can see that it is just the beginning of something more. At the beginning of ?Missing?, it is made clear that the speaker is not Vietnamese by his blonde hair. Yet we are taken to a village, where it and the inhabitants are referred to as ?my people? and ?my village?. We are told that the speaker has been photographed, published in an American newspaper, and mistaken for a prisoner that needs rescuing. That is not the case when we read further that ?I?m not missing, I?m here?. This insinuates that the narrator is not lost and looking for help, buthe is right where he wants to be. The newspaper makes it way back to the village somehow and this worries the man for fear that he will be found and expected to return to America, where he doesn?t want to be. He has lived in this village for twenty years, married, and fathered a child, this is where he considers his ?home? to be. The entire situation is upsetting to the man so he takes a walk. Upon his return to the village, he tells his people that, in his past life, the child he used to be would pray at night that he and his siblings would be able to escape from there. That they were covered in bruises, and in fear all the time. In both these stories we see people living in foreign countries, and seeming to be happy to be there. While in ?Missing?, the man is running from his past, they were running to a better future in ?Snow?. I can relate to each of these stories on a personal level so it was easy for me to understand what the characters might have been feeling or thinking that was not put into the story. Robert Olen Butler does a great job of helping us get a perspective of what his stories are trying to communicate and an even better insight to the culture and the values in those cultures. After reading a few of his stories, I look forward to finding more stories by Butler and living, even if briefly, a day in the life of one of his characters. My generation was just happening when the Vietnam War was ending, and for a long time it was not talked about, at least in my family. Authors like Butler can help us to learn about things no body wanted to put a voice to, the only problem may be deciphering what is fiction and what is reality. Perhaps this will allow us to see things from the eyes of someone who was there, yet wants to open the world?s eyes to a different side of the story. There is a lot to be learned from firsthand experience, even if there are fictional aspects thrown into the picture. Reading a few of Robert Olen Butler?s works has helped me with ideas about what writing should be about and how it should be done, now I know that pretty much anything goes when you are the author, most rules be damned! Freedom! Isn?t that what it was all about in the first place?

Robert Olan Butler 8 of 10 on the basis of 1875 Review.