Robert Olen Butler: Writing a Sensual New Orleans

By Gino Grieco

Robert Olen Butler was born in 1945 in Granite City, Illinois.  In the beginning of his college career at Northwestern, Butler felt that his profession would be acting; his father was a professor at St. Louis University and the chair of the theater department.  However, after finding some success acting, he found that he “would rather write than interpret” and as such he transferred to a writing focused major named, ironically, oral interpretation (Sartisky).  After graduating from Northwestern, Butler went on to attain a master’s degree in playwriting from the University of Iowa.Image  After graduation Butler was informed that he would likely be drafted into the Vietnam War, as his academic exemption no longer made him ineligible.  In order to avoid the draft process and decide his own fate, Butler enlisted in the army as a counter-intelligence operative; this position required him to study Vietnamese for a year in order to reach a level of fluency necessary for interpretation.  Butler served in the Vietnam War from 1970-71, during which time he discovered “that playwriting was not [his] medium” (Sartisky).  He felt that playwriting did not allow him to exert control over the sensual experience of his works, as that portion of the product is contributed by the actors.  Thus, he switched mediums to fiction, a medium where he found great success.  In 1993 Butler was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his volume of short stories A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, a series of short stories told from the perspectives of former Vietnamese citizens living in America, mainly in Louisiana.

Robert Olen Butler’s relationship to the city of New Orleans largely parallels Kelly and Michael’s relationship to the city in his novel A Small Hotel (2011).  Butler never lived in New Orleans; however, during his fifteen years teaching at McNeese State University in Louisiana, from 1985-2000, Butler made frequent trips to the city (interview).  It is from this perspective, that of the visitor, that Butler writes the story of a marriage born in New Orleans and nearly ended there.  The Olivier House Hotel in which Kelly stays in the story is based upon the actual Olivier House, which Butler frequented during his visits to the city; Oak Alley is also inspired by its real-world counterpart (interview).  Yet, the New Orleans that Butler creates and represents in A Small Hotel is far from an autobiographical account of his time in the city or the end of one of his four divorces.  Rather, the city serves as an “intellectual and aesthetic muse” for Butler’s sensual style (interview).  His style accentuates “the stuff you forget” about daily life– those little physical touches that seem so unremarkable in everyday life yet shape the way human beings remember and experience the world around them (interview).   Butler’s stylistic sensibilities permeate the novel, yet are most readily viewed during his descriptions of memories and the communication of love.

Butler most frequently utilizes sensual feelings in the novel as a catalyst for the many memories and flashbacks which the main characters experience.  In most cases Kelly and Michael do not attempt to invoke memories of their collapsing marriage; however, the physical and mental links which connect them to locations in New Orleans and Oak Alley prevent them from forgetting.  Butler conveys the sensual basis of memory to the reader through his emphasis of involuntary moments of recollection.  During Michael’s first scene in Oak Alley, he is involuntarily drawn into a memory of his wife after Laurie gently touches the tip of his nose, “he needed to make the point: for Laurie’s sake as well as his own, he [couldn’t] let Kelly into this room.  But the tip of his nose [made] him smile a faint, tender, involuntary smile at Laurie… And in this moment of Michael’s letting go to a gentle thing, Kelly [spun] to him” (14).  Michael is deliberately attempting to keep his wife’s memory out of his head and his life; he is trying to focus solely on his new girlfriend.  Yet, he cannot prevent the physical touch of his nose from triggering a latent memory of Kelly touching him in a similar way in “the center of an Oak Alley cottage bedroom, perhaps this very one” (14).  Butler seamlessly blends the physical act of touching with the involuntary smile triggered by years of happy muscle memory, followed abruptly by a full memory.  Through instances of memories such as this, Butler conveys to the reader the emotional and physical basis of memories: memories are not accessed like RAM on a computer at the will of the mind; they are accessed sporadically, imperfectly, and sometimes involuntarily.

The city of New Orleans is, to Butler, a locus of sensual memories and experiences, which makes a perfect place to stage a story driven largely by sensual memories.  In an interview with Nathan Martin, Butler said of the city, “New Orleans is an extraordinary city in that the past is always with us, and so it’s the perfect place to put a book in which memory and the past interact with the present. That’s what New Orleans is all about” (Martin).  The sense of overwhelming history present in the city allows the setting of the story to accentuate its larger worldview: the past is never truly past and human beings cannot control when it comes back.  However, the state of overindulgence and sensual overload present in the city also makes it especially appropriate for the type of history Butler is conveying.  The city allows him to capture the interplay between bodily experience and memory; as Butler explains, “One reason the partying is so hard and the life so intense is that everyone knows that at any time, on any given summer day, the city could vanish” (Berry).  In New Orleans, the residents must contend with the knowledge that at any moment the centuries of history built up in the city could be lost, and as a result New Orleanians live voraciously in the present by embracing the music, food, and parades of the past.  The threat of divorce in A Small Hotel presents a similar loss of history to Michael and Kelly; both have invested years and years of their now dwindling lives in their marriage, yet one signed paper could wipe away that history in an instant.

The city of New Orleans also serves as a counterpoint to the emotional repression expressed by Michael and Kelly throughout the novel.  Through Michael and Kelly’s inherited emotional distance, Butler is able to express the type of emotional starvation that he witnessed in his own parents’ relationship with their parents; both of Butler’s parents lived with one parent who was “unable to express love in any overt way” (interview).  When speaking about the city, Butler notes, “The life of openly expressed feeling is what New Orleans really represents, and that’s the problem here. Michael and Kelly do not speak the same emotional language” (Berry).  Though the city of New Orleans presents a location rife with emotional openness, Kelly and Michael both cannot overcome their inability to communicate their own emotional needs.  Kelly needs an open, verbal expression of love, while Michael shares his father’s opinion that “words spoil it.  They spoil it completely” (110).  Both characters experience love, and they attempt to convey love in their own way; but, neither of them can look beyond themselves and see that their attempts to communicate their emotions are not fully understood.  Though in the New Orleans streets strangers trade beads for sexual favors, this loving, married couple cannot share their most intimate thoughts in a way that is jointly understood.  It is in the absurd juxtaposition of New Orleans’ endless openness with Kelly and Michael’s tragically miscommunicated love that Butler emphasizes the need to communicate genuine emotion while also denigrating the misappropriation of shallow emotions.

Butler utilizes the city of New Orleans in A Small Hotel to invoke several of the popular images of the city and juxtapose those conceptions with Kelly and Michael’s burgeoning, then collapsing, relationship.  In setting the story in this particular city, Butler is able to leverage the interplay of past and present, communicated emotion and hidden emotion, physical experience and memory.  Butler currently teaches at Florida State University, yet his distance from New Orleans has not diminished his appreciation for the unique atmosphere of the city that care forgot.

Illustration

Butler, Robert.  Robert Olen Butler.  Photograph.  Florida State University: Forida.  FSU.edu.  Florida State University.  Web.  5 May 2013.

Works Cited

Butler, Robert Olen. A Small Hotel. New York: Grove, 2011. Print.

Butler, Robert Olen, and Michael Sartisky. “Robert Olen Butler: A Pulitzer Profile.” The Future of Southern Letters. Ed. Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 155-169. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Janet Witalec. Vol. 162. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2013.

Butler, Robert Olen. Telephone interview with author, 30 April 2013.

“Robert Olen Butler.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1 May 2013.

“Robert Olen Butler: The Danger of Wanting to Be a Writer.” Interview by Lorraine Berry. Talking Writing. Talking Writing, 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 1 May 2013.

“To Learn the Language of Feeling: An Interview with Robert Olen Butler.” Interview by Nathan C. Martin. Press Street. Press Street, 13 Sept. 2011. Web. 1 May 2013.

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