Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler


This is the story of William and his two sons:  William fought in World War II, Robert fought in Vietnam, and Jimmy went to Canada. Eventually the story reaches back to William's father in the Great War and Robert's grandson who wants to enlist to fight the jihadists, leaving no doubt that the author is writing about the many ways war affects those who wage it. 

After Robert has enlisted, Jimmy declares to their father that the real heroes are those who refused to fight in Vietnam. The enraged William slaps Jimmy. As I listened to this book, I was reading The Underground Railroad and at this juncture, I had to take a break from listening, given the contrast between the dramatic emphasis given to a father's slap and the horrors of slavery.

At 70 years old Robert is a historian at Florida State University, and except for his night-time struggles to suppress his memories of Vietnam, appears to have a contented life with his wife. Jimmy has never returned from Canada and has built a satisfying and successful business making leather goods. His marriage is more unconventional and turns out to be fragile rather late in the game, as he must be in his mid- to late-60s. 

William and his wife Peggy live an hour away from Robert and when William has a serious fall, Robert visits him a day or two after he recovers from surgery. At this visit William tells Robert that he does not respect Robert's Vietnam service and Robert comes to realize there is nothing he could do to please William. William dies the next day from a blood clot. 

Along with the stories of this family is the narrative of a homeless man, Bob, who Robert encounters and helps several times. At first Robert takes him for a Vietnam vet, but realizes he is too young and we learn later that Bob's father had been in Vietnam. Bob works to keep his head on straight, but is not entirely successful. He was taken in by a pastor and when everyone in the church was out, he finds a gun in the pastor's desk and takes off. For the rest of the book, thanks to Chekhov, we are waiting for that gun to go off. 

All the veterans of war in this book suffered for their service, sometimes for an untold story. We learn as William nears death that he had a moment of grace similar to the 1914 Christmas truce between himself and another man. Robert never tells the story of killing a man at close range when the Tet offensive began and he was not on base. Bob's raging father killed himself when the ignominious end of the war came.

Despite lots of detail about the lives of these characters, they never come to life for me. Their actions and feelings don't seem to match their ages. A man in his 90s probably wouldn't be able to wound his 70-year-old son with an accusation of taking the easy route in Vietnam. Jimmy's marital upheaval seem more plausible for a much younger couple. 

Robert Olen Butler, Perfume River, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016, 272 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available from the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

1 comment


  • The older we get the more we know. It sometimes becomes difficult to suspend one’s disbelief when enjoying fiction. I tend to stick to reality shows like The Lego Batman Movie and Days of our Lives.


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