Cue’s Pulitzer Reviews: A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain

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A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Biography of Robert Olen Butler

Robert Olen Butler has published twelve novels “The Alleys of Eden, Sun Dogs, Countrymen of Bones, On Distant Ground, Wabash, The Deuce, They Whisper, The Deep Green Sea, Mr. Spaceman, Fair Warning, Hell and (forthcoming this August) A Small Hotel.” Plus, six volumes of short fiction “Tabloid Dreams, Had a Good Time, Severance, Intercourse, Weegee Stories, and A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Butler has published a volume of his lectures on the creative process, From Where You Dream, edited with an introduction by Janet Burroway.

A recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, he also won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has twice won a National Magazine Award in Fiction and has received two Pushcart Prizes. His stories have appeared widely in such publications as The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Zoetrope, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and The Sewanee Review. They have also been chosen for inclusion in four annual editions of The Best American Short Stories, eight annual editions of New Stories from the South, several other major annual anthologies, and numerous college literature textbooks from such publishers as Simon & Schuster, Norton, Viking, Little Brown & Co., Houghton Mifflin, Oxford University Press, Prentice Hall, and Bedford/St.Martin and most recently in The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford.

His works have been translated into nineteen languages, including Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Polish, Japanese, Serbian, Farsi, Czech, Estonian, and Greek. He was also a charter recipient of the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award given by the Vietnam Veterans of America for “outstanding contributions to American culture by a Vietnam veteran.” Over the past fifteen years he has lectured in universities, appeared at conferences, and met with writers groups in 17 countries as a Literary Envoy for the U. S. State Department.

Screenwriter

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Since 1995 he has written feature-length screenplays for New Regency, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney, Universal Pictures, Baldwin Entertainment Group (for Robert Redford), and two teleplays for HBO. Typical of Hollywood, none of these movies he was hired to write ever made it to the screen.

Writing Secrets Revealed – Online

He is a Francis Eppes Distinguished Professor holding the Michael Shaara Chair in Creative Writing at Florida State University. Under the auspices of the FSU website, in the fall of 2001, he did something no other writer has ever done, before or since: he revealed his writing process in full, in real time, in a webcast that observed him in seventeen two-hour sessions write a literary short story from its first inspiration to its final polished form. He also gave a running commentary on his artistic choices and spent a half-hour in each episode answering the emailed questions of his live viewers. The whole series is a very popular download on iTunes under the title “Inside Creative Writing.”

He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the State University of New York system. Butler lives in Capps, Florida, which has a population of one. Not surprisingly, he was recently elected Mayor of Capps.

(source: website of the author)

Exquisite Work

Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” is a Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories (1993) which all share the common theme of Vietnamese and American relations, beyond the war, from a place of cultural exchange “sometimes insular, as in the lives of Vietnamese uprooted from their homes and trying to assimilate or simply respond to the family struggles of today with as little change as possible; sometimes post-traumatic in nature, and sometimes more light-hearted.”

Many of the stories’ titles refer to ideals whose luster is tarnished, or at the least, renegotiated in this post-Vietnam era. In “Fairytale,” a Vietnamese prostitute finds love with an American businessman, Pretty Woman style.

In another story, called “Love,” a Vietnamese-American man living in the greater New Orleans area catches his wife cheating on him with the owner of a popular Vietnamese restaurant, and uses a “witchcraft” curse from a “low down papa” named “Dr. Joseph,” with hilarious (unintentional) consequences.

To share Butler’s extraordinary talent, I’ve included here an excerpt from this gorgeously written story I’ve just described, which begins as follows:

“I was once able to bring fire from heaven. My wife knew that and her would-be lovers soon learned that, though sometimes the lesson was a hard one for them. But that was in Vietnam, and when the need arose once more, here in America, I had to find a new way. You see, it has never been easy for a man like me. I know I appear to be what they call here a ‘wimp.’ I am not a handsome man, and I am small even for a Vietnamese. I assume the manners of a wimp, too, and I am conscious of doing that. I have done it all my life. I cross my legs at the knee and I step too lightly and I talk too much on subjects that others find boring. But there are two things about me that are exceptional. First, I was for many years a spy. You think that all spies look like the men in the movies. But real spies have a cover identity, even if that cover was in place many years before they began their secret life. The second thing about me is that I have a very beautiful wife. I married her when she was fifteen and I was twenty-five. Her parents were friends of my parents and they liked me very much and they gave me this great blessing and this great curse.”

The stage is set so completely with such a seemingly minimal effort on the part of the author, whose ability to create a strong character never seems self-important or stereotypical. The protagonist in this story is funny, likeable, and more than a little determined to keep his wife’s love and loyalty. Still, as a reader, you don’t expect the drama to unfold the way it does, and that’s not exactly an easy feat to accomplish.

The diversity of Butler’s imagination creates so many different plots, so that you never feel like you’re reading variations on a theme, but more like each story is full of delightful surprises and its own unique characters. Butler’s language borders both the poemy and realistic divisions of literary fiction, describing, in the title story, “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” the visions of a dying man, which starts, “Ho Chi Minh came to see me again last night, his hands covered with confectioner’s sugar.”

I’m a fan of Robert Olen Butler and have recommended his collected short stories on many occasions. These stories provide a multi-faceted look at the Post-war diaspora as it affected various classes of Vietnamese society and American culture alike. They are so beautifully written, well-crafted, and entertaining that anyone would enjoy reading this collection.

To read more of Cue’s Pulitzer Reviews, visit the back issues of The Hollywood Sentinel in the link here below.