On a sultry evening, outside a lovely old Louisiana plantation manse, a handsome middle-aged lawyer in an antebellum tuxedo accompanies his gorgeous new love, who's rocking her Scarlett O'Hara regalia. And what gallant thing does he say at such a romantic moment? "Michael lifts his shoulders in a slightly exaggerated shrug. 'I'm a codger lawyer with a young girlfriend who looks great in ruffles and is ardent to wear them.' " Robert Olen Butler's new novel, A Small Hotel, is the story of a romance. But, despite some bodice-ripper trappings, don't expect him to play it straight.
Butler, who holds the Michael Shaara Chair in creative writing at Florida State University, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, a collection of short stories narrated by Vietnamese immigrants in the United States.
His more recent works of fiction have tended toward the high concept: Severance was a collection of very short stories narrated by people who had just been beheaded, Intercourse was told from the points of view of lovers in the act, and Hell was set in that very place.
Butler carried them off with brio, but he returns to more traditional form in A Small Hotel. Not much longer than a novella, it tells a realistic story about three characters: successful lawyer Michael Hays, his almost-ex-wife, Kelly, and his new squeeze, Laurie Pruitt.
Michael and Laurie (who cheerfully admits "I've got the ditz gene") are in the early stages of their relationship when they drive from Pensacola, where they live, to Oak Alley Plantation for a getaway. At the same time, Kelly has skipped her appointment to sign the final divorce papers and is checking into Room 303 of the Olivier House in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
She's very explicit about that room. It's where her relationship with Michael began — in swooningly romantic fashion — 25 years before. It's a room they returned to many times throughout a happy marriage. And it's where that marriage ended.
Oak Alley is another place the couple stayed together. Michael is checking in there now with Laurie. Kelly is checking into Olivier House with a fifth of single-malt Scotch and a big bottle of Percocet. Both of them are checking in with more than two decades' worth of memories.
One of the book's most intriguing themes (one Butler also explored in Intercourse) is how two people's perceptions and memories of the same event can diverge, subtly or hugely. A Small Hotel may be a brief book, but its structure is intricate, a web of the couple's memories so dense that that room in New Orleans, with its single occupant, comes to seem as crowded as the Quarter's streets during Mardi Gras — which happens to be where Kelly and Michael met.
He rescued her then, from a trio of drunken thugs harassing the naive young woman in a cat costume. Rescue is one of his specialties, but communication, that fault line in many a marriage, is not. In one flashback, Michael recalls a warm moment with Kelly and their young daughter, Samantha:
"Michael does not move, happy to watch the two girls in his life from this place apart. He does not examine his comfort with this distance, but it is strong in him. This is his proper place. From here he can provide, protect. Nearer to them, in the sweet smell of them, in the fragile, needy physicality of them, he would only become clumsy, would only feel the demand for words and gestures he could never adequately give."
That distance will become a deep barrier. But if you think you can predict how the story of this love triangle goes, think again. Butler skillfully sets up expectations only to twist them, and twist them again. Words — said and unsaid — can change everything in an instant.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.