Robert Olen Butler has done war. Now he's done sex. No question which was more difficult.
"Oh, sex," the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning author says breezily. "You find that hardly any of the great writers try to write about it. You know, if you got a group of people together, and asked them to name some serious literary books about war, you might come up with 200 titles. But ones about the essence of human sexuality? You might get a couple -- that's it."
Mr. Butler stares at his interviewer intently. "Which leading American writers write about sex?" After a moment, he answers the question himself. "Updike, to some extent. Roth." Then he makes a pantomiming motion with his hands, as if trying to conjure more names but coming up blank.
Robert Olen Butler wants to join the short list.
After writing six highly acclaimed novels and his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories about the Vietnam War ("A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain"), he's turned to literary sex -- or, perhaps, sexual literature -- with his recently published novel, "They Whisper."
It exhaustively chronicles the sexual obsessions of a middle-aged advertising salesman named Ira Holloway, who declares early on: "I remain forever in this place in me where a smell of leather or a glimpse of a lovely elbow or shoulder or earlobe or some movement of air or cast of light thrills me in ways that I cannot put into the safe terms of the mind."
Ira is a guy who still remembers the thrill he got as a 10-year-old helping a young girl buy shoes in his uncle's store. Young Ira was moved beyond belief at the sight of her toes in the X-ray machine: "There have been as few minutes in my life as intimate as the sight of Karen Granger's actual bones, her actual articulated bones with their shape visible to me . . . "
Who is this man who would wax erotic about earlobes and metatarsals? He's a writing professor from McNeese State University in Louisiana, a former U.S. intelligence officer in Vietnam who speaks the language fluently, a failed playwright who cheerfully admits he wrote "12 dreadful plays, four dozen bad short stories and six bad novels" before his first novel was published in 1981.
At 49, balding and dressed in dark shirt, tie and casual slacks, Mr. Butler comes across as a friendly, modestly hip accountant. (It's interesting to note that Oscar Hijuelos, another American author whose books are infused with sensuality and sexuality, is likewise fortyish and thinning on the top. A trend perhaps?)
On this rainy spring day, near the end of a long publicity tour for "They Whisper," he exhibits a candid chattiness that is endearing, even if occasionally he lapses into what-a-good-boy-am-I observations about his work ("I have the highest standards for my writings"). Perhaps that's because he's enjoying his time in the spotlight, though he's worked hard to get there. "Actually, I was afraid it might never happen," he says with a shrug.
Writing about sex, he says, is a tedious task.
"There are two problems in writing a book about eroticism," he says. "First, it's kind of a Catch-22: If you write about the relationship, it becomes a book about relationships. So you've got to keep the focus on the erotic element.
"Second is the linguistic problem. There are more words in English than in any other language, but the words don't exist that have a sense of vulnerability about sex. Either they're too clinical or too scientific, or they're gross or dismissive."
Through women's eyes
Like Mr. Hijuelos ("The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love"), Mr. Butler writes about sex from the female point of view, which gives "They Whisper" a welcome counterpoint to Ira's obsessiveness.
"I consider that one of the great challenges in writing -- to see something from the eyes of someone totally unlike yourself," Mr. Butler says. "I wanted to imagine sex from a woman's point of view -- in all aspects. And so far, women have told me I've gotten it right."
In "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain," he attempted something equally as audacious: 15 short stories, each told from the point of view of a Vietnamese expatriate in America, and almost half of them women. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, some quietly moody, some light and upbeat. It was a tour de force by any measure, and "Good Scent" won last year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction over such better-known competition as Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses" and Robert Stone's "Outerbridge Reach."
Now he's writing the screenplay for a movie version of "Good Scent," which will have Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club") as director and Oliver Stone as executive producer. Also, his early novels have been reissued in hardback. Suddenly, the literary world has taken notice of this Louisiana writing professor, who has been toiling away at his fiction since he returned from Vietnam in 1972. Those who had been reading his books feel the recognition is long overdue.
"I like his work a lot," says Wayne Karlin of Leonardtown, who has written several well-received novels about the Vietnam War and its impact on American society ("Us," Lost Armies"). "I think he's one of the few American writers about Vietnam who have consciously made a choice from the beginning to see the war through the Vietnamese point of view in his fiction. And he not only does it, he does it beautifully and lyrically.
"There's a lot of bad stuff being written about Vietnam, but even with the good stuff, it tends to take the American point of view exclusively," Mr. Karlin continues. "It's understandable, but one of our failures in the war was not seeing it from the Vietnamese point of view."
The periphery of battle
Mr. Butler's writings are different from most books about Vietnam in another way: They are seldom about war-making. There are few scenes with rifle-toting soldiers, few instances in which grunts are facing off with the enemy.
"That was not my experience," he explains. "And, Number 2, there are books about the nature of war, and male bonding, and courage and fear. Those are all good themes, but I'm more interested in the issues of human love, identity, the finding of oneself during war conditions, the collision of cultures and cultural dislocation. I write about the intense activity on the periphery of the battle."
When he got to Vietnam in 1969, Mr. Butler discovered that he didn't like the war, but he loved the country and its people. "I never really felt part of the war effort," he says. "I didn't believe in the war. I knew something was wrong but couldn't say what -- it was so complex."
He found that speaking Vietnamese eliminated barriers faced by most U.S. soldiers. "My favorite thing was to go out late at night and wander the back alleys of Saigon and crouch in the doorways and talk with the people," he once wrote. "I was extremely close to the Vietnamese, closer even than to the people I grew up with, and I've been close to the Vietnamese living in America, and so they have inevitably found their way into my work."
They will continue to do so, though Mr. Butler insists, "I'm not a Vietnam novelist, in the same way that Monet was not a lily-pad water colorist." His next novel will concern a U.S. soldier who returns to Vietnam in 1993 and falls in love with a Vietnamese woman.
Mr. Butler himself returned to Vietnam last December and was pleased by what he saw.
"Saigon is to my senses as London is to my mind," he says dreamily. "Saigon hadn't changed as much as I had feared. It's still like no other place in the world."
While his next novel will be set in Vietnam, Mr. Butler sees it as the second book in an erotic trilogy. The third, as he envisions it, will reprise the character of Karen Granger, she of the sexy young toes in "They Whisper."
"I see all kinds of possibilities with Karen Granger," Mr. Butler confides. This is a man who found love in an X-ray machine, and you believe him.