In Robert Olen Butler’s new novel, Perfume River, the past is very much present. Childhood nightmares, war trauma, and moments of romantic passion—memories five decades old—run through characters’ minds as if distant episodes are happening alongside current events. Robert Quinlan, a seventy-year-old history professor in Tallahassee, has spent his career studying antiwar movements, but he still can’t come to terms with his own participation in Vietnam. Quinlan and his wife, Darla, also a tenured professor at Florida State, stoked their early love over the fires of the campus protests in the late-1960s and remain loyal partners. Even Darla, though, does not understand the depth of Robert’s anguish over his actions on one horrifying night forty-seven years earlier.
Robert’s recollections of the Vietnam years intensify due to two unrelated events. He runs across a homeless man, coincidentally named Bob, whom he first perceives to be a fellow Vietnam vet, though the man is too young to have been drafted. Soon thereafter, Robert’s father, active and irascible at eighty-nine, breaks a hip and requires surgery.
Robert senses that time is running out for the two of them to have an honest conversation about their war experiences. His father, who spends afternoons at the VFW rehashing battle stories with fellow World War II soldiers, has never opened up about what it was like to fight for General Patton. But when the moment of reckoning arrives, the old man makes a revelation that casts a new shadow over Robert’s own already-darkened memories of Vietnam.
Butler’s most famous work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, explored the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of the Vietnamese. With Perfume River, Butler argues that the war continues to exact a psychic toll on American soldiers and destroyed families, as well. Robert’s brother Jimmy, two years younger and more stridently opposed to U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, chose to evade the draft by moving to Canada. The break with his father was mutual and irrevocable; neither the father’s health crisis nor the intervening decades will heal the rift. Jimmy feels that his real life is the one he has made for himself in Toronto, not the one thrust upon him by the lottery of birth. As Jimmy puts it, “blood ties are overrated.”
Butler’s prose moves seamlessly between 2015 and flashbacks, narrating personal histories in the present tense. Robert recalls the night of the Tet Offensive, when he ran in mortal terror from his base and found shelter in a banyan tree. “He puts his back to its roots and he sits and he draws his legs into him and he is in the dark,” Butler writes. “Bodies appear, nearly as dark as the night, moving quickly past with a metallic rustle of weapons, and he pulls his head back, squeezes into himself.” That night of panic and bloodshed has haunted him ever since, but he has never been able to share his experiences with anyone. Part of him believes he shouldn’t have made it out of that jungle; the guilt he feels for surviving has become the background hum of his daily existence. “I was not meant to be here,” Robert tells himself. “I was meant to die long ago.”
Next to the explosive divisions in the Quinlan family, the marital discord Butler depicts appears much quieter, but the consequences of drifting away from one’s spouse can be just as profound. Robert and Darla have long since settled into routines that keep them separate, freeing them to pursue academic work but effectively isolating them. Has too much time gone by for them to reconnect? Can they reignite romance after their bedroom has become purely functional? Robert wonders, “When did sleep begin to trump desire?” Jimmy and his wife Linda never wanted to burden each other with freedom-limiting promises of fidelity. Jimmy wonders how much Linda has exercised her license, and whether he might have another fling left in him.
Perfume River teems with what remains unsaid. Jimmy’s mother regrets letting her son disappear into a foreign life without any communication from her. Robert wonders if his relationship with his brother would have been different if he had spoken up in Jimmy’s defense. In choosing to join the Army in a non-combat position, Robert tried to satisfy both his patriotic father and his pacifist wife. He realizes now that the middle course was impossible. “He could never have won the respect—never have won the love—of both his wife and his father,” Robert thinks. “He always had to choose.” But, what did he choose? Is he a killer or a coward? Robert himself can’t say for certain.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches English at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.