By Robert Olen Butler
Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition (September 6, 2016)
Of all the modern writers I admire and who have inspired me the most, Robert Olen Butler would be at the top of the list. Butler’s latest, Perfume River is a literary tour de force. Beautiful, haunting, and evocative, I have never been moved by a novel as much as I have been moved by this one.
The story about two brothers, Bob and Jimmy, and their strained relationship with their father is the story’s critical mass. The story moves seamlessly back and forth through time as both brothers come to terms with their dying father and the spiritual wounds of the Vietnam War which split apart the family. What’s so moving about the relationship between the father and his sons, is how Bob and Jimmy represent the polarity of the war: Bob the one who goes off to fight to win his father’s favor and Jimmy who wants nothing to do with the war and runs off to Canada. Butler could have stopped here, and the book would have been a fine one as the two brothers in later years reconcile those differences. However, Butler doesn’t. Instead, he takes it to the next level with the real story here: laying to rest the ghosts of war.
One early scene that resonated most for me was on the eve of the Tet Offensive, and the older Bob tries to get back to the compound, and he hides in a banyan tree. It reminded me of this Buddhist statuary at a temple in Ayuthaya, Thailand, where the roots of a banyan tree had grown around it. This moment in the story was both gripping as it was almost surreal the way Butler described it. For Bob, this was a defining moment not only for trying to survive Tet but also the deep, dark secret he will carry with him through life.
The story is also a microcosm of the nation coming to grips with the war and the wounds that still exist. Even more, is the significance of the character of the other Bob, himself a veteran of Afghanistan. As America continues to find itself ensnared in that conflict, the character of the second Bob is a grim reminder of another generation of young men and women sent into harm’s way.
For many of us, who were not in Vietnam, we come with our own perceptions of the war from the movies and documentaries we have seen and the literature we have read, which is good and bad. But my read of Perfume River…there’s this human element with the two Bobs and Jimmy that again, and this is just my perception of the story, has really helped me understand the war and the lives it took…physically, mentally, and spiritually.
It’s hard to say if a novel could provide some semblance of closure for the men still fighting that war, but I believe Perfume River does just that. If anything it serves to remind us of the generation of young men who still carry the scars of war with them. If we are ever truly going to heal as a nation and lay to rest the ghosts of war, it takes authors like Butler to remind us that it can be done.