Chapter 41: “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” by Robert Olen Butler (1993)

My first entry on the new and improved Pulitzer Project blog and we are officially back in this thing. This morning, around midnight, Joshua finished Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: the Tale of an American Dreamer, thus becoming the first of us to finish a novel and review it here. A mere 13 hours later, here am I following suit.

To get back into the swing of things, I wanted to take it a bit easy on myself. Of course, I could have picked up where I left off back in April and re-started Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, the May Challenge Novel that I put down after having only finished three chapters. Then, of course, life got more and more insane and I quit reading all together. So, Robert Olen Butler’s, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, being a relatively small collection of short stories, seemed to be the best option to get back into the swing of things. As things turned out, I don’t think I could’ve picked up with a more appropriate selection.

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One theme that keeps reoccurring along this Pulitzer journey is displacement—being a stranger in a strange land, being an immigrant, being out of place, being an alien. We see it in Interpreter of Maladies, in The Shipping News, in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Foreign Affairs, etc., etc.—I could go on and on with this list. The same holds true for Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain—1993’s Pulitzer winner. A Good Scent is a collection of short stories, not necessarily about the Vietnam War, or even the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but more about the people of the Vietnam War and its impact on the Vietnamese. All of the stories in this collection focus on Vietnamese men and women who abandoned their homes when the war ended and immigrated to the United States, all of them building for themselves new lives in New Orleans, Louisiana.

And all of the characters in these stories are intimately connected with each other in this way—besides their origins, besides their current residence, and besides their reasons for coming, all of these characters are still, very much, in Vietnam. As though they never left. All of them, in each story, are continually looking back to the old country, continually looking back to their old lives, as I suppose would be the natural thing to do for immigrants all over the world. However, in each of these stories, it didn’t really seem like the characters are particularly looking forward to their futures in their new homes. They were content, they were happy (mostly), but very seldom did a character display any hint that they considered America their “home.” It would be more appropriate to label America simply as “current and future place of dwelling.”

Vietnam, however, was still their home.

I think the same would be true for me, if I were to move away from Chicago. This my home; and even if I were to move to any other place in the world that I would love and carve out for myself a place to be, I know I would always consider Chicago my home. So, really, I can only come to the conclusion that, for Butler, displacement is so much less a narrative theme than it is a reality of life.

“There’s no place like home.”

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I very often find myself looking back. Especially lately, as the impending fate and realities of adulthood looms overhead—descending, descending ever nearer. The wife, the two and a half kids, the dog, the 9-5 job, the living for the weekend, the bills, the reality of my life fading, fading, fading away into mediocrity.

I look back now, at my life, and wonder what I could have done differently; how I could have kept some people in my life, how I could have gotten rid of some people sooner, how I could I have brought some people in, how I could have kept some people out. I wonder how different my life would look now based on any number of changes I could have made to my past.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I’ll never know. This is my life now. The present is all I have.

The same goes for the characters in this collection of stories. The same goes for all of us.

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Almost every story in this collection really tugs at the heartstrings—particularly “Open Arms,” “The Trip Back,” “Fairy Tale,” and “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” Butler creates a narrative by combining Vietnamese folklore, contemporary Western World realities, faith, spirituality, friendship, and love that is warm and inviting. The type of storytelling that is at once mystical, heartbreaking, and inspiring.

Really, the only story I just couldn’t bring myself to care about was “The American Couple”—a story about three American couples and a Vietnamese couple that win dream vacations to a resort in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico by being the winning contestants on game shows. Again, the idea of being strangers in a strange place. Whereas most of the stories are 8-12 pages long on average, “The American Couple” clocks in at almost 80 pages—almost as though Butler had written a novella and didn’t know what else to do with it, so stuffed it in this collection. The story was jarring and unnerving, having little to do with the rest of the collection.

This collection of short stories comes highly recommended from me. Butler is a master storyteller with a strong penchant for writing clearly, concisely, gently, and lyrically, often lulling the reader into a deep, mystical, dark place—a secret garden tucked away in the midst of Vietnamese mountains. With A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler gives a unique voice to a unique group of displaced Vietnamese people, all trying to figure out a way to make a home for themselves in a new country, while still struggling to maintain their identities.

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