Coming from a writer who's produced a short-story collection based on lurid tabloid headlines and whose last novel was set in Hell, the subject matter of Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Olen Butler's new novel -- a longtime marriage in crisis -- might seem pedestrian, even sentimental. In fact, "A Small Hotel" is a piercing dissection of one such relationship, bristling with insight into the forces that attract and repel men and women.
Room 303 of the Olivier House Hotel in post-Katrina New Orleans' French Quarter is a special place for Kelly Hays and her husband, Michael. It's the place they spent their first night together about 25 years earlier, after Michael rescued Kelly from a group of street toughs on Mardi Gras night. It's a place to which they've returned to celebrate the milestones in their marriage of more than two decades. And it's the place Kelly has now come, alone, to end her life with a cocktail of Scotch and Percocet, after fleeing the Pensacola courthouse where she was to appear to finalize their divorce.
On that same evening, Michael is 50 miles away at Oak Alley Plantation, participating in an antebellum costume party with Laurie Pruitt, a woman young enough to be his daughter. As he attempts to enjoy the festivities, looking forward to what will be his first sexual encounter with Laurie, he waits uneasily for his lawyer's confirmation that the divorce proceeding has reached its intended end. His irritation at Kelly's flight turns to panic when her cellphone message reveals her plan.
Through the memories of these flawed, but essentially decent characters, Butler paints a stark portrait of each one's emotional needs, the roots of their longing established in early childhood, as he exposes how the inability to satisfy those hungers has scarred an outwardly happy marriage.
The novel ranges seamlessly across expanses of time, often, remarkably, within the space of a single paragraph. Michael and Kelly's reflections elide from present to past and back again, as each "slips into another undercurrent of the past." They summon up their recollections of some of the same events, on occasion eerily similar and at other times strikingly different.
Butler's most impressive accomplishment lies in capturing the mingled emotions of anger, remorse, pain and even love that mark most divorces, as in Michael's failure to "overtly remember those few minutes when there was only silence and hope and the sudden inevitability of the future between him and the woman who, he assumes, ceased being his wife this morning."
There are precious few moments of levity, and only the smallest sliver of hope in this novel, one whose suspense is maintained almost to the final page. Honest and compassionate, Butler's exploration of a marriage's sundering is the work of a mature, reflective author.
Harvey Freedenberg is a freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle. He writes from Harrisburg, Pa.