Do soldiers ever really return from war?
That question is at the heart of Robert Olen Butler's poignant new novel, Perfume River. Butler's first short story collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, drew much of its subject matter from the Vietnam War, in which the author served as an Army intelligence officer. Perfume River, his 16th novel, returns to that complex war and its endless reverberations.
Butler is a longtime faculty member in the creative writing program at Florida State University. His fiction has ranged from surreal satire (Severance, Intercourse) to swashbuckling thrillers (the Christopher Marlowe Cobb series) to thoughtful realism (A Small Hotel).
Perfume River falls into the last category with its insightful portrait of a family shaped and shaken by war, even 50 years after its last soldier returned.
Its main character is Robert Quinlan, a 70-year-old professor of history at FSU. His wife, Darla, is an art theory professor. Their children are grown, their grandchildren almost so, and the couple live in scholarly harmony in a handsome house, working in their own separate studies.
The novel begins with the two catching a quick dinner at the New Leaf Co-op, squabbling mildly over quinoa on a winter evening. Robert's eye is caught by a man nearby, "clearly overbundled, perhaps from the cold drilling deeper into his bones because of a life lived mostly outside. Or perhaps he simply needs to carry all his clothes around with him."
Robert is a Vietnam veteran, and he assumes the homeless man is one, too (a telling assumption). But a closer look reveals that the man is probably in his 50s, too young to have served in Vietnam. By that time, though, Robert is already buying the man dinner and chatting with him, discovering that his name is Bob, that he is indeed homeless and probably mentally ill — he's not in fact a veteran, but he has his own kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, courtesy of Vietnam.
That encounter will not occupy Robert for long, not after he gets a phone call from his mother to tell him his 89-year-old father has fallen and broken a hip. William Quinlan, too, is a veteran, of World War II. From boyhood, Robert knew the war was the defining experience of his father's life; indeed, the son enlisted during Vietnam in large part simply to please the demanding, domineering William.
Robert was not eager for battle; he wangled a position as a researcher that would, he thought, keep him out of harm's way. But he was posted in Hue during the wave of surprise attacks by the North Vietnamese known as the Tet Offensive. Leaving the arms of a young Vietnamese woman he was in love with, Robert spent much of the first night of the attacks hiding inside a massive banyan tree — a night that ended with the kind of violence he hoped to avoid.
Half a century later, Robert is still haunted by that night, and his relationship with his father remains complicated. The old man's injury — the kind so often a prelude to death — gives their differences urgency.
A much wider gulf exists between both father and son and Robert's younger brother, Jimmy. Almost 50 years ago, Jimmy fled the draft, moving to Canada and cutting off all communication with his family. His decision was less political than personal: He fell in love at first sight with a beautiful war protester. They're still married and running a successful artisanal leather goods business. But, just about the time William Quinlan breaks his hip, Jimmy discovers that his marriage, long an open arrangement that allowed discreet affairs, has suddenly cracked wide open.
Events will bring Jimmy back to the United States, and both he and Robert will confront why men go to war, or don't. Butler gives us chapters from each brother's point of view, suspensefully counterpointed by that of Bob, whose mental state is approaching crisis.
Perfume River focuses on fathers and sons, but it also gives us a moving portrait of long marriages. Robert's and Jimmy's mother, Peggy, has played the role of William's devoted wife for so long she isn't sure how much of it is real anymore. And in Robert and Darla's marriage, Butler describes in wry, elegant detail the choreography and coding of how much space lies between husband and wife when they go to bed, who brings a Kindle or iPad, who turns their device off first — all the little battles and victories on the home front.
But Perfume River flows finally, in its last lines, toward why Robert and his father were so permanently marked by their wars — a secret they couldn't even share with each other.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.