John Forbes Kerry could learn something about Vietnam from Robert Olen Butler. Both veterans have had trouble summoning the passion of their wartime experience when faced with other subjects, but Butler has recently discovered that it’s less about reminding the audience about your service—they’ve heard it before—than about reminding yourself. While the senator fumbles with domestic issues that seem disconnected from what matters most, the writer finds the lever that pulls him back to the most intense and meaningful time of his life.
Just as Kerry achieved renown as a returning veteran willing to question the war, Butler dealt thoroughly and painfully with Vietnam in six of his first seven books, culminating in the Pulitzer-winning collection A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain (1992), told in the voices of Vietnamese people living in Louisiana. Since then he has employed a number of ingenious literary devices designed, apparently, to force him to adopt voices dissociated from his personal experience. Snicker-worthy headlines such as “Woman Hit by Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac” and “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” inspired the stories in Tabloid Dreams. Some are as whimsical as you’d hope, but “Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire,” with its self-immolation punchline, strays over into places you fear, places in Southeast Asia. It’s just too hard not to think of those protesting monks or of Norman Morrison, the Quaker whose suicide Robert McNamara credits (in Errol Morris’s doc The Fog of War) with opening his eyes to the extent of the opposition.
Each story here starts with a newspaper article and a postcard. The articles are sensational (“Dress With Buttons on Back Enables Woman Prisoner to Escape”) but come from such respectable sources as the New-York Tribune. Almost all of this material is dated 1910, the year that, according to Virginia Woolf, “human character changed.” Specifically, she pinpointed that shift to December; if you take her literally, then, these are pre-modern voices, emerging from a world that came before the world of the world wars. The postcards are reprinted, front and back, and most of the stories enlarge upon the voice of the correspondents.
In the few duds, Butler halfheartedly connects with his narrators, relying on stereotypes and secondhand accounts. The Irish immigrant in “Twins” recalls “a life of potatoes and turnips and turf fires.” There is much consternation on the part of the conservative groom over the new federal income tax in “I Got Married to Milk Can.” (Sometimes, the original authors of the postcards show more sparkle than Butler’s narrators.)
Notwithstanding the period details, the conflicts deepen in light of the author and the nation’s experience in Vietnam. “Up by Heart” begins lightheartedly as a clown decides to become a preacher, demonstrating his piety by washing his friend Ernest’s feet, and then delivering an over-the-top sermon about taking the Bible literally. But when God Himself appears and orders him to murder his wife and child, it becomes a story about obeying the bloodthirsty commands of a superior (officer). The title character in “Hiram the Desperado” is a juvenile bully who brandishes a farm implement as he waits outside a cabin in the woods, tragically misconstruing the drama transpiring inside. “The One in White” is narrated by a cynical foreign correspondent too distracted by a pretty laundress to realize that he’s a pawn in an imperialist game. “I pass a couple of dead Mexicans,” he reports. “I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. My business is getting stories. You’re dead, and your story’s over.”
Death is everywhere. The widow in “Carl and I” notices, “When yellow fever and cholera and small pox aren’t going around, there’s always influenza and pneumonia and typhus and scarlet fever and measles and whooping cough and diphtheria, to name a few.” Hiram counts off a similar litany of diseases; so does the banker in “This Is Earl Sandt” even as he weighs another kind of death, that of the fallen pilot of the title. Butler’s collection is as a worthy companion to Wisconsin Death Trip, Michael Lesy’s Vietnam-era compendium of morbid newspaper articles and photographs from the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century.
Viewing stories set a century ago through the lens of Vietnam lifts Had a Good Time from the historical-fiction ghetto. Take “No Chord of Music,” the richest story in the collection, which chronicles a Texas housewife’s meeting with Comanche chief Quanah Parker during a joyride in Hardeman County. The moral—every meaningful encounter with someone from another culture makes it harder to return home—is a truth deeply felt by Butler, who was a translator during the war. And without the unmentioned Vietnam background, we might not hear history echoing as both tragedy and farce.
Douglas Brinkley’s recent biography of Kerry, Tour of Duty, leads off with the senator’s 2002 dedication of a Vietnam veteran memorial: “Say the word Vietnam to a veteran and he or she can smell the wood-burning fires, hear the AK-47s and B-52s, see the pajama-clad Viet Cong and the helicopters darting across the sky.” Butler could tell him that you don’t even have to say the word. Even after you get out, the quagmire continues to draw you in.