Robert Olen Butler won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his short story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, yet another entry in the canon of literature about the Vietnam War. Butler’s conceit is a new one, revolving around Vietnamese immigrants in the greater New Orleans area, transplants from one delta to another, dealing with the culture gap as well as the weight of history, of a country left behind, a war lost, and often a family divided by death or distance. These depictions show great empathy for his subjects, but rarely veer into the sentimental, instead giving greater depth and color to a population that is marginalized here after a war that, despite hundreds of novels and stories on the subject, is still in search of its great, defining literary work. I’m not sure that this is it, though.
The strongest stories blended the experiences of their central Vietnamese characters into American settings, giving readers familiar ground underneath the unfamiliar emotions or cultural norms of their subjects. “The Trip Back” takes a common subject, the declining health and memory loss of an aged family member, and grafts it on to a Vietnamese couple struggling emotionally in their new country as they receive a visit from that family member, not realizing his mental state until after he gets off the plane. (Nice job by the Vietnamese branch of the family, failing to inform the American branch that the man was senile.)
One exception, the title story, is the best of the collection as it follows the conversation between a dying Vietnamese man and the ghost of Ho Chi Minh, whose hands are coated with sugar from his time in Escoffier’s kitchen before his own radicalization. Ho admits to his dying friend that he is not at peace in the afterlife, and the friend realizes it’s because Ho used confectioner’s sugar – which contains cornstarch or another anti-caking agent – instead of granulated sugar. Is the sugar standing in for the standard “blood on one’s hands” metaphor, with the wrong sugar the betrayal of the Marxist philosophy underlying the revolution, leading to Ho’s restlessness beyond the grave? Is that the dying man’s own conscience, questioning his onetime friend’s radicalization while he himself chose Buddhism and a life of peace? (In reality, the Communist leader probably did not work for the famous French chef, or, at least, there is no evidence that he did, but the symbolism depends on that connnection.) Meanwhile, the man overhears his family here in America admit to knowledge of and perhaps involvement in the murder of a local Vietnamese man who wrote an editorial urging the U.S. to admit that the war was over and begin normalizing relations with Vietnam, in direct contrast to his own non-violent philosophy.
Two of the stories flopped because of fully predictable endings – “Letters from my Father,” which repeats an urban legend that most of you have probably heard before; and “Love,” told by a cuckolded husband who used to protect his wife (and manhood) in Vietnam by telling U.S. forces that Viet Cong fighters were hiding where his wife’s would-be suitors lived.
The one longer story in the book, “The American Couple,” was for me the weakest entry in the collection. Told from the perspective of a Vietnamese woman, Vinh, a sharp observer whose skills help her win a trip for two to Mexico on an unnamed game show that is obviously “Let’s Make a Deal,” and whose husband fought for South Vietnam. They strike up a slightly awkward, arm’s-length friendship at the resort with an American couple, one that gradually drifts into a childish battle between the two men, both of whom are dealing with the memories of a war in which they participated but never truly fought. Telling the story from Vinh’s perspective robs us of any insight into the behavior of the two men – the entire episode seemed juvenile to me – while she is almost robotic in her relaying of the action.