Robert Olen Butler is a prolific writer – and each time I read a book of his, I’m encouraged to dive into his bibliography and read others. Perfume River is his latest book. I chanced upon it in the Portland, MA library, but that’s another story.
Butler’s most famous book, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, is short stories, many of them about the Vietnam war, from the POV of the Vietnamese, both in Vietnam and in the U.S. In Perfume River, he returns to the war again, this time from the POV of American families in the U.S.
We are long post-war. Robert Quinlan, the main character, is 70, a veteran; his father William a veteran of WWII. Robert and his wife, Darla have a long and happy marriage, even though she was a demonstrating pacifist in the 60’s. Robert is still dealing with his father’s attachment to war and killing. This has affected Robert and his brother Jimmy since childhood. They took different paths regarding the war: Jimmy fled to Canada and Robert enlisted so he would not be in the infantry, as his father was. This rift in the family has never been healed. William’s illness and unexpected death force the family to deal with secrets that will change their lives.
Twined throughout the Quinlan saga is the story of Bob, the son of a Vietnam veteran. Bob is now homeless and suffering from his own PTSD. Through him, Butler examines the war’s impact on next generations, a fascinating exploration.
This is a beautifully written book—the tale of brothers who chose different paths, their families and their ability to face life’s unpleasant revelations and move forward. It is also a story of marriage, how it changes with age yet remains a defining source of loyalty.