Review: Butler's 'Intercourse' imagines our intimately timed thoughts

Robert Olen Butler's new short story collection, Intercourse, is predicated on the notion that though we may think about sex a lot when we're not having it, we tend to think about almost anything else under the sun while we are.

Butler, a Florida State University creative writing professor who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, often builds his story collections around a shared conceit.

Tabloid Dreams, for example, drew its story titles and inspiration from supermarket tabloid headlines, while his last book, Severance, was a group of very short stories that imagined what various historical and fictional characters thought in the moments between being beheaded and dying.

Based on a much more common experience, Intercourse is a series of paired short-short stories, each a he thought, she thought (or sometimes both hes or shes). They imagine what a range of couples, starting with Adam and Eve, were really thinking while in flagrante delicto.

Butler sets each scene with the names and ages of the participants — some real, some mythical, some fictional — and the location of their lovemaking.

Many of the stories are clever, compact evocations of character. A bloodthirsty Cleopatra thinks of murdered Julius Caesar and plots new power while she's doing an awestruck Marcus Antonius. Henry VIII thinks of himself in third person — "he bestrides the land" — while cynical Anne Boleyn has a chilling vision of her fate.

Many of Butler's couples are literary. Even in the sack William Shakespeare thinks in gorgeous poetic terms, but his lover Henry, the Earl of Southampton, "my young man, my dark lady," is a dab hand with sweet metaphors himself.

Ernest Hemingway writes and rewrites an opening paragraph in his mind while a prostitute imagines a clean, well-lighted place. Walt Whitman sings of himself, as Oscar Wilde snarks, "Your body is not electric, my captain."

Butler has a lot of fun with historical figures. Sigmund Freud thinks about a dream, of course, as his sister-in-law thinks about a cigar, which is clearly not just a cigar. There's one threesome: martial Napoleon, passionate Josephine and her pug dog, Fortune, who does not approve of the "big dog on my doggie" and takes his revenge.

Some stories feature the thoughts of a range of power couples: Prince Charles and Princess Diana (during their last royal conjugation), Laura and George Bush (hers, redecorating; his, kicking somebody's a--), and a very funny take on Bill and Hillary Clinton's first time.

Some of these stories are insights into how little we communicate in the most intimate act; others are just laugh-out-loud funny. Either way, you just might find yourself thinking about them next time you're, well . . .

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or cbancroft@sptimes.com.

Intercourse:

Stories

By Robert Olen Butler

Chronicle Books, 216 pages, $22.95

Robert Olen Butler will be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 25.

Review: Butler's 'Intercourse' imagines our intimately timed thoughts 09/13/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 13, 2008 4:30am]

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