I don't mind calling myself a Louisiana writer," Robert Olen Butler says in a recent phone interview from Denver, on the road promoting his new book of short stories based on his postcard collection, Had a Good Time: Stories From American Postcards (Grove Press, $23). In 1985, after publishing several novels, Butler moved from New York City to Lake Charles to teach creative writing at McNeese State University, where he remained until cherry-picked by Florida State University in 2000. "But," he notes, "it was in Louisiana that I became a mature writer. In Louisiana you can see life going on.
"What I like about FSU is what I liked about McNeese," he continues. "It's just a larger version, and Tallahassee is comfortable in the same ways as Lake Charles. We live outside of town in a house next to a 7,000-acre nature preserve, in a house on the National Register but I miss Louisiana. I'll have to get back someday. In fact, my next novel is set in New Orleans."
It will be the third book he's set here. He's cracked enough crawfish over the years to offer literary replacements for Binx Bolling and Ignatius J. Reilly in the Vietnamese enclaves of the West Bank and eastern New Orleans in his 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. You can see it in the Vietnamese immigrant who hoards John Lennon's last pair of shoes in eastern New Orleans in "Love," and, in "Relic," the cuckolded former Vietnamese spy who goes into the lower Ninth Ward searching for a pig's bladder. And the eponymous hero of his 2000 novel, Mr. Spaceman, is among us even now, telling futures down in Jackson Square.
"All of that comes from the clash of cultures in Louisiana, which I love," Butler says. "Also, like with the postcards, I'd been collecting ever since the Vietnam War all of these elements of Vietnamese life and culture, voices really, who found their outlet in that book."
Postcards were everything that America was supposed to be in a more charming time. Their novelty began to wear off around Sunday, Aug. 7, 1910, the date Butler picked as the fulcrum for Had a Good Time. First looking into the book and reading the inscriptions Butler found in his hours of obsessive collecting, one can't help but laugh out loud:
"Dear Mathilda, Just a line to let you know I am still alive. I am not going on that hayride. The young man that wants me to go with his sister in law. But she has a cork leg. I am awfull tired that is the main reason. Regards to all. Milton."
"After the battle notice the pretty Seniorita's in this photo. The one in white does my laundry."
"Dear Pauline, Arrived at Portland yesterday morning and it was such a relieve for we had an upper berth and I didn't sleep a wink. Well I got married to Milk Can and we are now on our honey moon. Mr. Watt is here and he looks stunning. Katie"
"Dear Owen -- This is the school where Cousin Hiram reigns supreme & curries the town ruffians. All's well. Chas."
But two feelings set in quickly as Butler begins to explore the stories behind the postcards, taking clues from the front and back. The first is the trembling of uncertainty; if history was waiting for these poor saps, what awaits us? Secondly, the reader begins to question what it is exactly that Butler's trying to pull with these stories. President Bush, are you our Woodrow Wilson? Avian flu incubating in Chinese chickens, are you our great influenza? Iraq, are you our Verdun, our Flanders Fields?
Are these to be read as light comedy or profound critique?
"In my writing," Butler says, "I've always been responding to popular culture. There's a deeper sense, a collective pleasure there. I'm enchanted by pop culture. There's a depth to the surface, a deeper mythos. My collecting instinct is driven by this, finding inspiration and voices in the details."
These stories percolate with the details of American life. Class warfare, like John Edwards' call to acknowledge "two Americas," provides the edgy narration of "Hotel Touraine." The surprise and nightmare of war explodes in "Mother in the Trenches." Epidemics and sickness are ever-present -- diphtheria, influenza, polio. The boy Hiram in "Hiram the Desperado" witnesses an abortion without knowing it, caught up in his cowboy-and-Indian world.
Most significantly, when the alert reader reaches "This is Earl Sandt" and sees the smudged postcard image of a biplane in motion and reads the back, "This is Earl Sandt of Erie Pa in his Aeroplane just before it fell," the figurative association to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, develops quickly. Butler wrote the story on a 19-day Web-cast in November, 2001, a marathon still viewable at www.fsu.edu/~butler/, where you can actually watch his process of composition (and, one presumes, grass growing and paint drying):
"Above me was the sky where Earl Sandt had spent his last moments of life. I did not look. I leaned hard onto my knees. I closed my eyes. I held tight to the steering handle and there was something terribly wrong. These wings that felt like my own limbs -- I sensed them stretching out from me and lifting me up -- these wings went weak and so did my limbs of flesh, I was instantly aware of the very surface of my skin, the beating of my heart. And I felt a questions rise like a gasp into my throat: What was it I believed?"
This sensation of being at a performance, of sitting in the audience, or the other end of a Web-cast, is a strength of the book. Considered as a series of monologues spoken by the same actor, without a disguise to mask him, adds to the appreciation of Butler's craft. With other writers this would come across as an affectation, but the elbow-jab and wink of Butler's humor keeps one in the theater.
"That comes from my early training in the acting," he notes. In fact, his first book of non-fiction will be published in the fall, a transcript of his lectures on writing at Florida State University, called "Method Writing." The work correlates his ideas about writing to the Stanislavski ideas of method acting.
"I've never written a story that's not part of a series," he said. "My stories are placed in a conscious way, in a gestalt. The stories are intertwined. It's not a novel, but the stories are intertwined in the same impulse I use to write novels. It's stories instead of a novel because the artist doesn't choose his medium. Look, I'd written six novels before I wrote my first mature short story. I was invited to contribute a short story to the NPR program The Sound of Writing, and I agreed but when I went back into my files I found all my apprentice stories from my youth were worse than I remembered.
"But in 'The Deuce' I'd used a bit of Vietnamese folkways material, particularly about the Vietnamese-American kids learning about cricket fighting, and I wrote it one sitting, in a seven-hour stretch. I went to bed that night thinking about other Vietnamese voices and stories, and when I woke up I had the whole shape of Good Scent figured out in my head." Unlike Good Scent, Had a Good Time isn't completely successful in creating a unified tone in the manner of his previous collections. It lacks the directly visualized action that drove each story toward a dramatic climax, nosing together like spawning salmon. The language of the postcard -- clipped, understated, sentimental -- finds its way into the stories at unwelcome moments, as at the end of "Mother in the Trenches": "Softly, very softly, I said, 'You're a good boy. Your mother loves you.'" The irony in the story is deep as the Marianas Trench, but this ending is unavoidably cloying. Then again, it's hard to write about mothers. In the hinterland gas-lamp testimonials of its characters, Robert Olen Butler is rescuing these small figures, even if his speculations are unlikely and wicked. An honor has been done by his vast sympathy for what life and death have to offer.
- "In my writing, I've always been responding to popular culture," says Robert Olen Butler. "There's a deeper sense, a collective pleasure there. I'm enchanted by pop culture. There's a depth to the surface, a deeper mythos."
- Whether light comedy or profound critique, Robert Olen Butler's Had a Good Time toys with the reader's uncertainty about just what exactly the author's trying to accomplish.