A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
The dark horse winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize, a writer named Robert Olen Butler had, it turned out, published six little-noticed novels, with subjects ranging from the war in Vietnam to atomic tests in Los Alamos and labor unrest in a Depression-era steel town. To judge from the two most recent, this comparative neglect is not surprising. Wabash, his Depression novel published in 1987, pits the decent characters (the workers) against the bad (the mill owner and his foreman) in so simplified a way that one can almost imagine it as a boy’s book from the 1930s—except for the ending, in which the hero, who is saved at the last minute by his loving wife from murdering the boss, recovers from the impotence that has plagued him since the death of his little girl. The Deuce (1989), I am afraid, is an equally sentimental and melodramatic book, in which a dirty-talking half-Vietnamese boy recounts his experience in the fetid world of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Forty-second Street. Neither work prepares the reader for the originality or the sheer oddity of the best pieces in his collection of stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.
All of the stories have first-person narrators who, in one way or another, are part of the large community of Vietnamese exiles in southern Louisiana. One group—the “West-bank Vietnamese”—consists of Buddhists from South Vietnam who now live in Gretna, just across the Mississippi from New Orleans; others, mainly Catholic refugees from the North, have settled in a place called Versailles northeast of the city; still others are to be found among the oil refineries of Lake Charles. A number of them have prospered in local businesses and have adopted American ways with greater or lesser success. Butler seems exceptionally well equipped to present their stories, for he knows Vietnam well, having served there as a linguist and counterintelligence agent, and currently lives and teaches in Louisiana. The stories are told by Vietnamese men and women ranging from the very old to the almost young. With one exception, Butler is not interested in mimicry or in rendering half-learned English. He gives to all his narrators, whatever their background, a fairly educated, slightly stilted English with a few idiomatic uncertainties—language that could as well be a translation from Russian as from Vietnamese.
What all of his characters share is the strain of being caught between two radically different cultures with conflicting values. Butler’s intimate knowledge of the language and folkways of Vietnam enables him to make the bird-markets of Saigon and the ancestral shrines of the villagers as vivid for the reader as the Plantation Hunan Restaurant in Louisiana—or the television show Let’s Make a Deal, in which the winning contestant, a Vietnamese housewife, is dressed as a duck and carries a sign that reads DON’T DUCK A DEAL.
In the most successful stories (perhaps half of the collection), it is not just the sensibilities of the transplanted Asian that are at stake. In “The Trip Back,” the narrator is a man who prides himself on being “just a businessman, not a poet”; his thoughts are so concentrated on his laundry and other businesses as to exclude any nostalgia for his Vietnamese past or any strong feeling for his wife. As he drives from Lake Charles to the Houston airport to meet his wife’s aged grandfather, who has just been “liberated” after living thirteen years under Communist rule in Vietnam, he approvingly notices the various little businesses along the highway. He is especially struck by a sign advertising the Mattress Man, under which are printed the words JESUS IS LORD.
I am a Catholic and I must say this made me smile. The Lord of the universe, the Man of Sorrows, turned into the Lord of the Mattress, the Mattress Man. But even so, I understood what this owner was trying to do, appealing specially to those of his own kind. This is good business practice, when you know your sales area. I have done very well for myself in Lake Charles in the laundry and dry-cleaning business. It is very simple. People sweat a lot in the climate of southern Louisiana, and there was a place for a very good laundry and dry cleaner.
Mouthing such Rotarian platitudes, he also honors the Vietnamese sense of family, and, although he is a Catholic, he approves of his wife’s small Buddhist shrine to her father, who had drowned when she was a little girl. But while he can understand his wife’s yearning to be reunited with her adored grandfather, who had been like a father to her, he can, he says, do so only objectively, without empathy. The story then takes a sad turn. The old man at the airport, while polite and cooperative, turns out to be quite senile: he can remember the fine car that he used to drive between Saigon and Hanoi in the 1930s but denies ever having had a granddaughter. The narrator is left to deal not only with his wife’s heartbreaking disappointment but also with his own prized detachment and the realization that “deep down, secretly, I may be prepared to betray all that I think I love the most.” The story’s ending, in which the narrator surprisingly recovers his atrophied capacity for feeling and acts upon it, seems to me somewhat forced, but moving nonetheless.
In “Love” Butler presents us with what is essentially a contemporary version of a comic medieval fable. It is told by a small, unprepossessing man, an admitted “wimp” in appearance, who was a spy for the Americans during the Vietnam War. Through an arranged marriage, he has an exceptionally beautiful wife—at once a great blessing and a great curse.
Her name is Bu’ó’m, which means in English “butterfly.” She is certainly that. She would fly here or there, landing on this flower or that, never moving in a straight line. And how do you summon a butterfly? Only show it a pretty thing. It is not her fault, really. It is her nature. But it is a terrible thing to be married to a beautiful woman.
Whenever she walked provocatively down the street, with the top two buttons of her blouse undone because of the heat, “the GI jeeps would slam on their brakes and honk and the Vietnamese men would straighten up slowly and flare their nostrils.” It was only the Vietnamese men that he worried about, and he found a way of dealing with those who got too close to Bu’ó’m. He would “bring fire from Heaven”—that is, he would locate a spot where his would-be cuckolder was likely to be found and then inform the Americans of impending Vietcong activity in that place. “If I said there were going to be rockets at dawn from such and such coordinates, then first thing the next morning the United States Air Force would come in and blow those coordinates away.” It took his wife a long time to realize that someone was in control of the disappearance of her admirers.
Once they move to America, things are much better: the Vietnamese men in America have somehow lost their nerve, and Bu’ó’m seems happy enough to go shopping with her women friends. Then a handsome Vietnamese restaurant owner appears, and the narrator must once again deal with a rival—only now he has no way of calling down fire from heaven. Instead, he goes to a Voodoo practitioner in New Orleans who gives him a pig’s bladder and a vial of blood and tells him that he must fill the bladder with the shit of a he-goat, pour in the blood, tie the bladder with a lock of his wife’s hair, and then, at the stroke of noon, throw the bladder over the roof of his rival’s house. But where is he to find the shit of a he-goat? The likeliest place, he decides, is the children’s zoo in Audubon Park. While he is following close behind a goat, an empty popcorn carton in hand, a class of schoolchildren arrives accompanied by their teacher.
“Come on,” I said, low, and I watched the goat’s tail flick once, twice, and then there was a cascade of black pellets. I have particularly good reflexes and not more than half a dozen of them fell before my popcorn box was in place and clattering full of what I needed.
Then a child’s voice rose from behind me, right at my elbow, howling in amazement, “Miss Gibbs, this man is putting goat doodies in his popcorn!”
It was now that I once again thought about my wife’s face. I considered it in my mind and asked if it was worth what I was going through.
From that point the story rushes forward to a tumultuous, farcical conclusion which makes one think that Butler has been reading “The Miller’s Tale.”
“A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” one of the book’s two ghost stories, begins, “Ho Chi Minh came to me again last night, his hands covered with confectioners’ sugar.” This prepares us for an enigmatic and haunting journey into the mind of the narrator, a near centenarian, who is now living with his daughter’s family in Louisiana. A devout member of the Hoa Hao sect of Buddhists, he has reached the point in extreme old age when, according to Vietnamese custom, all of his living family and friends come to him for a final conversation and a formal leave-taking. The curiously sweet-smelling apparition of Ho is “real”—it does not vanish when the old man turns on his bedside light.
I knew it was real because he did not appear as he was when I’d known him but as he was when he’d died. This was Uncle Ho before me, the thin old man with the dewlap beard wearing the dark clothes of a peasant and the rubber sandals, just like in the news pictures I studied with such a strange feeling for all those years. Strange because when I knew him, he was not yet Ho Chi Minh. It was 1917 and he was Nguyen Ai Quoc and we were both young men with clean-shaven faces, the best of friends, and we worked at the Carlton Hotel in London, where I was a dishwasher and he was a pastry cook under the great Escoffier.
The two men have subsequently taken radically different paths—the way of revolution and the way of the Buddha—but now it seems that Ho is more concerned about the sugar glaze he was preparing for Escoffier than about any of the weighty issues of politics or religion. Ho’s answers to the narrator’s questions about the other world are dusty indeed:
“Are you at peace, where you are?” I asked this knowing of his worry over the recipe for the glaze, but I hoped that this was only a minor difficulty in the afterlife, like the natural anticipation of the good cook expecting guests when everything always turns out fine in the end.
But Ho said, “I am not at peace.”
“Is Monsieur Escoffier over there?”
“I have not seen him. This has nothing to do with him, directly.”
“What is it about?”
“I don’t know.”
“You won the country. You know that, don’t you?”
Ho shrugged. “There are no countries here.”
On Ho’s third and final visit the sweet smell of sugar has become almost overpowering: “It was filling my lungs as if from the inside, as if Ho was passing through my very body, and I heard the door open behind me and then close softly shut.”
Meanwhile, the narrator, pretending to be asleep in his overstuffed chair, becomes aware that his son-in-law and grandson—both ex-officers in the army of the Republic of Vietnam—are involved in the recent murder of a courageous Vietnamese journalist in New Orleans who had been advocating an acceptance of the Communist rule in Vietnam. The ghost, the old man’s memories of the dead, and the events of the recent murder appear to us in a series of arresting images. Nothing is made finally clear, nothing is neatly tied up; Butler has had the good sense to allow the old man’s memories and impressions to dominate the piece, and the result is a brilliantly told story that I will not soon forget.
Among the other stories I particularly enjoyed “Fairy Tale,” in which Butler departs from his usual narrative style and allows Miss Noi, a former Saigon bar girl who now dances naked in a Bourbon Street nightclub, to tell us, in her rather charming broken English, about her unlikely romance with a shy car mechanic who, with his long nose and small black eyes, looks like a goose. In “Relic” a lonely, insecure man who has made some money tries to hasten his assimilation by purchasing one of the shoes that John Lennon had been wearing on the morning of his assassination. Both testify to the quirkiness of Butler’s imagination and to the touching quality with which he endows the characters who most inspire him. Of the weaker stories—the ones that are slight or sentimental or (as in the case of the ambitious novella-length piece called “The American Couple”) much too diffuse in the telling—I will say only that one can happily ignore them while taking delight in the odd attractiveness of the others.