A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
by Robert Olen Butler
Penguin, 249 pp., $10.00 (paper)
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 …