By Moira Cue
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 here is 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, “Hô Chí 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 mufti-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.
This story is ©2013, Moira Cue / The Hollywood Sentinel, all world rights reserved.