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.