Skip to main content

Perfume River


Perfume River

In a literary career that’s been noteworthy for its diversity, Robert Olen Butler first came to prominence in 1993, when A GOOD SCENT FROM A STRANGE MOUNTAIN, his Vietnam-themed short story collection, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In the two decades that have ensued, his production has included a short story collection based on tabloid headlines (TABLOID DREAMS), an eponymous novel set in hell, and a book of writing instruction (FROM WHERE YOU DREAM), among other works.

Now Butler has returned to Vietnam for inspiration. PERFUME RIVER is an elegiac novel about the aftermath of the war in the lives of two brothers --- one who served and another who left the country to make a new life in Canada --- nearly half a century after their fateful choices.

Butler, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971 and who speaks fluent Vietnamese, has taught creative writing at Florida State University for 16 years. He draws upon his intimate familiarity with both settings for this story. Robert Quinlan, a professor of history at FSU, has settled into a quiet, orderly life near Tallahassee with his wife, Darla, who teaches art history at the university. But his memories of Vietnam, including his affair with a Vietnamese woman, are never distant.

"Though superficially a straightforward family drama, PERFUME RIVER poses some deeply serious questions about the nature of our engagement with war and the way throughout history it has served the purpose of testing the resolve and courage of young men."

On Labor Day weekend in 1967, after Robert has enlisted in the army, his younger brother, Jimmy, announces his opposition to the war, provoking a rupture with their father --- himself a veteran of General George Patton's Third Army --- that's made permanent when Jimmy, his student deferment expired, escapes to Canada in 1968 with his girlfriend, Linda. In 2015, they're the proprietors of a successful high-end leather goods business in Toronto, and no words have passed between Jimmy and his family in that interval.

PERFUME RIVER inevitably calls up memories of Tim O'Brien's short story, "On the Rainy River," one of the most memorable entries in his iconic Vietnam War collection, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED. That story --- the first person narrative of a draftee struggling to decide whether he will proceed with induction or flee to Canada to escape service --- ends, "I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to war."

In a different fashion, Butler asks us to confront the question of which of the Quinlan brothers made the more heroic choice --- Robert, who was "not to be a shooting soldier," but instead expected to engage in "order-of battle work, rather like research," in relative safety "bunkered in at the core of a headquarters compound," or Jimmy, who made a decision he knew destined him to live in isolation from his family.

The conflicting ways that each confronted the decision to go or stay --- one that may seem alien now that more than 43 years have passed since the last American young man was conscripted into military service --- emerge when their father, approaching 90, is hospitalized after a fall. When Robert calls Jimmy to inform him of William's serious injury, he understands that his brother's refusal to return home is "the result of too much life lived incommunicado," and that they're "teetering on the brink of forty-six years' worth of unexpressed blame and justification, anger and regret, jealousy and insecurity."

Robert is also haunted by an incident at the outset of the Tet Offensive January 30, 1968. That night in Hue, he slips out of the bed of his Vietnamese lover as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese assault begins, hoping only to make it back to his base undetected and unharmed. On the way, he's involved in an act of violence that would have seemed inconceivable to him at the time of his "safe" enlistment, a secret he's carried with him to the present, and one that calls into question traditional notions of heroism and cowardice.

Butler injects a subplot involving a homeless man named Bob Weber, whose life intersects with Robert's in Florida. Bob bears his own emotional scars, inflicted by a father who served in Vietnam, and who returned to the United States bitter about the way "They humped our asses through the jungles of Hell, blew us apart, body and mind, and then they just up and quit. Turned the last page. Gave the whole thing away and turned us into chumps." While Bob is a sympathetic character, there's little about his own story that's as compelling as the Quinlans' drama.

Though superficially a straightforward family drama, PERFUME RIVER poses some deeply serious questions about the nature of our engagement with war and the way throughout history it has served the purpose of testing the resolve and courage of young men. It also explores how notions of loyalty and duty can be part of a son's genetic inheritance and what can happen when they are challenged. And it reveals how, more than 40 years after its ignominious end, the Vietnam War remains for some Americans an open wound. Butler's refusal to even hint at easy answers to those questions makes this a novel that succeeds in engaging us in profound and important ways.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 16, 2016

Perfume River
by Robert Olen Butler

  • Publication Date: August 8, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802126952
  • ISBN-13: 9780802126955