“Perfume River” is a novel caught in a feedback loop. The protagonist, Robert Quinlan, 70 (like the author), a professor at Florida State University (like the author), served a couple of years in Vietnam (like the author), an experience that haunts him — as you might say it haunts Robert Olen Butler’s work. Butler has written 16 novels and six story collections, and though he has ventured into speculative, historical and comic corners of fiction, he has returned often to Vietnam, most notably in “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” winner of a 1993 Pulitzer Prize.
What brings Vietnam back to our not-quite-hero Robert is a fall that takes his father, a curmudgeonly old veteran of the Good War, to the brink of death. And this in turn brings back the complicated circumstances of Robert’s service, which involved all manner of estrangement in his family and, in a subtler way, his marriage to Darla (an art scholar “known for her book ‘Public Monuments as Found Art: A Semiotic Revisioning’ ”), a pacifist he met at a war protest on the streets of Baton Rouge.
It’s ironic, in an especially dark way, that Robert chose enlistment to, as he puts it, “minimize my risks,” to “slide away to the side, to land and work and fly home as one of the eight out of ten who goes to war and never kills … who goes to war to please your dad.” Ironic, because he does end up killing, though in a “headlong flight into cover, more proof of my instinctive cowardice” — but his father knows only about the risk-minimizing way Robert went to war. And Darla, equally unenlightened, is moved by his valor at going before coming back to denounce the American misadventure in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Robert’s younger brother, Jimmy, rejecting the war from the first, had broken with father and family and moved to Canada — only to be contacted by his mother 40-some years later when his father lay dying.
Moving among these characters is a narrative provocateur, a free radical of sorts in the form of a homeless guy (his shoulder-length hair is “shrapnel gray” — really?) whom Robert encounters at a restaurant and mistakes for a fellow vet (oddly, as the fellow, Bob, is a generation shy of the Vietnam War — but he’s also the son of an overbearing militaristic father, which I suppose explains his resonance).
At the heart of the story — or stories, which move fluidly among Robert, Darla and Jimmy, one character’s thoughts sometimes answering another’s — is a knot of misunderstandings, misconceptions and assumptions that begin to unravel with the father’s fall, only to be replaced by new if somewhat clearer distortions.
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin. On the Web at ellenakins.com.
By: Robert Olen Butler.
Publisher: Grove Atlantic, 273 pages, $25.