Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler

perfume-riverRobert and Darla Quinlan met and married after he had served a stint in Vietnam.  His experience forever cemented his anti-war convictions.  At the same time, Robert’s younger brother headed to Canada to avoid conflict.  This led to him being written off by their parents, especially their father, a hardened World War II veteran.

In the present day, Robert and Darla are both tenured professors at Florida State University, comfortable with their steady careers and encroaching age.  They have a quiet familiarity of routine, which is soon interrupted when Robert meets a middle-aged homeless man at the co-op where they often eat.

Bob, as the homeless guy calls himself, is, if not a war veteran, a veteran of the aftermath of war.  He recalls his own father’s directed scorn, and in his unhinged mental state, his father becomes all too present.

Bob appears again in Robert’s life over the next few days, the final time tragically.

Things change abruptly when Robert’s father breaks his hip and then dies of complications.  This forces Robert to reassess things – his relationship with an overbearing mother, his tenuous to nonexistent dealings with his brother, and the fragility of his own marriage.  He also has to examine his past during the war.  Telling the partial truth about it leads to a rift between Robert and his father right before the father’s death.

Perfume River is a quiet exploration of bitter truths told from several viewpoints.  Its characters are all broken in their own fashion; all manage some kind of existence in their fragmented states.  There is an abrupt climax, but the book does not resolve into a tidy ending.

The book is very much an interior one – that of individual musings rather than driven by plot.  There is action and violence, and these certainly influence the course of the narrative, but the book is more about the effects of war, half a century later.

(William Hicks, Information Services)





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