KR Reviews

On Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler

New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016. 273 pages. $25.00.

The stain of defeat and disillusionment from the Vietnam War popped the bubble of exuberance that the Baby Boomer generation rode through the roaring sixties. They were the face of America in that era, setting trends for bobby socks, poodle skirts, American Bandstand, miniature golf, Camelot, John Glenn in space, and the discarded, crumpled black cigarillos of Clint Eastwood westerns. As so often happens, their culture and accomplishments were forgotten by following generations. But before they slid into anonymity, there remained an ill-defined cicatrix in their souls, which has been plucked out and placed under the microscope by Robert Olen Butler in his beautifully written “Perfume River.” He crystallizes the smear of the American angst, the conflicting seeds sown by carpet bombing, Agent Orange, and brutal jungle combat, buried deep in the conscience of soldiers who believed they were honoring their country’s call only to return to indifference or disgrace.

In the center of this is Robert Quinlan, a respectable university professor and Vietnam veteran. He has been going through the motions of a marriage, of numbing routine and vapid conversations with Darla, his wife. They are unable to communicate their feelings: he, suffering the recurring nightmares of killing a man while fighting for his life during the Tet offensive. And despite being hailed a hero, he endures the scorn of his World War II veteran father, who knew Robert attempted to avoid combat with a cushy administrative job. Darla is wallowing in the conflict between her initial infatuation with this soldier, this man of combat, only to grasp the perversion of their culture that raises monuments to men who kill other men in battle.

Robert hasn’t spoken to his brother Jimmy for decades because Jimmy fled to Canada and avoided the draft. He’s still there, a bitter, disillusioned hippie living with a morally adrift woman who likes nature foods and casual sex. His inner rage never stopped smoldering at his betrayal by his country and his father. His resolve to never return is not shaken, even with his dad’s impending death.

Jimmy and Robert share one thing in spades—guilt. Robert is haunted by flashbacks of killing a man, realizing that whether in the Good War, the Vietnamese War, or in any war, killing is taking human life. Jimmy’s guilt is that his father permanently branded him a coward, a disgrace, and that his country betrayed his chances for a future. Their dad’s death will rip the cloak of denial off both brothers.

A mysterious figure crosses their lives: Bob. Bob is a drifter, a misanthrope, a man barely scraping by, but so damaged by his own father’s ignorance, he has no place left on earth to belong. In an unexpectedly strange, Christ-like way, he will lift the burden of guilt from Robert and Jimmy.

The book reads beautifully, seamlessly moving through points of view and effortless flashbacks, which round out the brothers’ before-and-after emotions, twisted and ripped apart by events beyond their control.

In fourteen trips to North Vietnam to operate on landmine victims and the disabled, I worked with a Vietnamese surgeon who learned his medicine in the jungle. The Tiger Battalion tattoo was on his forearm, and he was at the battle of Khe Sanh. By coincidence, one of my best friends from high school was wounded there. Thirty-two years later I asked Dr. Linh, “What do you think about what happened, about the war?” After some thought, he answered, “I think the American people are good people. It was the American government that made war on us. Now, I live for my grandchildren.”

Pierce Scranton, Jr. is a graduate of Kenyon College, and a retired orthopedic surgeon. He is the author of Playing Hurt: Treating the Warriors of the NFL, and currently completing his first novel, Asleep Real Good, a psychological thriller.