University bookshelf: Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Veterans Day is November 11. Fittingly, Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction writer and Vietnam veteran Robert Olen Butler will offer a craft talk and a reading on Thursday, Nov. 10 as part of the fall Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series. The fall series, unintentionally, featured three writers whose work has explored war and its effects on soldiers and their families. Still, Joseph Bathanti, the series director and professor of creative writing in Appalachian’s Department of English, explained: “This gathering of writers within a single semester does underscore Appalachian’s commitment to veterans and their families, and it also underscores the work that the university’s Appalachian Veterans Arts and Humanities Collective is embarking on.”

Butler’s novel, “Perfume River,” examines family ties and the legacy of the Vietnam War through the portrait of a single North Florida family.

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Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler - Available from Atlantic Monthly Press
Perfume River

By Robert Olen Butler

From one of America’s most important writers, Perfume River is an exquisite novel that examines family ties and the legacy of the Vietnam War through the portrait of a single North Florida family.

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. William Quinlan, Robert and Jimmy’s father and a veteran of World War II, is coming to the end of his life, and aftershocks of war ripple across all their lives once again, when Jimmy refuses to appear at his father’s bedside. And an unstable homeless man whom Robert meets at a restaurant and 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.

Perfume River is a lyrical and emotional exploration of one family’s drama that echoes the lives of so many who are affected by the aftermath of war. It is a profound and poignant book written by an author at the height of his powers, a portrait of family, personal choice, and how war resonates through the American experience.