Robert Quinlan is a seventy-year-old historian, teaching at Florida State University, where his wife Darla is also tenured. Read more...
Robert Quinlan is a seventy-year-old historian, teaching at Florida State University, where his wife Darla is also tenured. Their marriage, forged in the fervor of anti-Vietnam-war protests, now bears the fractures of time, both personal and historical, with the couple trapped in an existence of morning coffee and solitary jogging and separate offices. For Robert and Darla, the cracks remain under the surface, whereas the divisions in Robert's own family are more apparent: he has almost no relationship with his brother Jimmy, who became estranged from the family as the Vietnam War intensified. Robert and Jimmy's father, a veteran of WWII, is coming to the end of his life, and aftershocks of war ripple across their lives once again, when Jimmy refuses to appear at his father's bedside. And an unstable homeless man whom Robert at first takes to be a fellow Vietnam veteran turns out to have a deep impact not just on Robert, but on his entire family.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-07-25
- Reviewer: Staff
Butler’s assured, elegant novel explores a family fractured by the Vietnam War as its members face the losses of age. In 1967, Robert Quinlan enlists, hoping to secure a noncombatant role in Vietnam, while his younger brother, Jimmy, cuts family ties after his father violently rebukes his antiwar stance. While dining out in Tallahassee, Fla., 47 years later, Robert—now 70 and a university professor—meets a mentally ill homeless man, also named Bob, whom he takes for a Vietnam veteran. He is wrong, but the encounter reawakens memories of the Tet Offensive, when a split-second decision burdened Robert with secrets and guilt. The day after the encounter, Robert’s father, William, shatters his hip, and Jimmy, a resident of Canada since his flight to avoid the draft, is told of William’s uncertain prognosis. As the brothers and those around them face the possibility of a reunion, they look at their relationships anew; meanwhile, an increasingly delusional Bob crosses paths with the family again. The novel has obvious links to Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, but its characters struggle to adapt to the dislocations caused not by war or geography but by time. Eddying fluidly through its half-century span, the book speaks eloquently of the way the past bleeds into the present, history reverberates through individual lives, and mortality challenges our perceptions of ourselves and others. Agent: Warren Frazier, John Hawkins & Associates. (Sept.)
The memories of war
It’s no secret that war tears families apart, including those comprised of militaristic parents and their pacifist offspring. Robert Olen Butler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, has written eloquent works about Vietnam and its effect on families. He returns to these themes in Perfume River, a heartbreaking story of fathers and sons and their expectations and disappointments.
Robert Quinlan, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran and professor of American history, lives in Florida with his wife, Darla, an art theorist. They’re enjoying tofu curry at a local co-op when a disheveled man with few teeth enters. Robert, thinking the man is a fellow Vietnam vet, buys him a meal. This encounter takes Robert back to his Vietnam service, where he was “one of the eight out of ten who goes to war and never kills.”
Robert’s younger brother, Jimmy, moved to Canada rather than serve in the war, a decision that angered their World War II-veteran father. Jimmy now makes high-end leather goods, has an open marriage with Linda, his wife of 24 years, and hasn’t seen his parents and brother for 46 years.
But with their 89-year-old father on the verge of death after a fall, Jimmy has to decide whether to return to the States and risk unleashing decades of “unexpressed blame and justification, anger and regret.”
The disheveled man’s story, which Butler revisits throughout the book, feels extraneous, but Perfume River is a powerful work that asks profound questions about betrayal and loyalty. There are marvelous descriptions throughout: When Robert dashes out of a banyan tree, “a needle-thin compression of air zips past his head.” As this provocative novel makes clear, each of us does what he or she must, but acts of conviction are rarely free of consequences.