Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 8, 2010

Vietnam in the Gulf

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler (1992), Penguin, 249 pp.

With almost hourly updates on the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico arriving via every live news feed in my house, I was reminded of this lovely, sad book about Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993, and I used to assign it in my college courses. I may start using it again.

I’ve known for years about Hmong immigrants in Minnesota and upstate New York, but before reading this book, I hadn’t realized that a large community of Vietnamese had settled in southern Louisiana, to become shrimp fishermen. Now, according to news reports, they constitute almost 80% of the shrimp workers and boat owners.

This book is as much about the Vietnam War as it is about immigrant lives in the deep South.  In “Open Arms,” a businessman tells of a brutal event from the war, and most of his story takes place in an Australian army camp in South Vietnam. A defector from the Communists is brought into the camp, where, after being forced to watch several pornographic movies, he kills one of the Australians and then himself.

This is a rather emotionless précis of a powerful story, in which the defector’s yearning for his dead wife mirrors the narrator’s yearning for his estranged wife, which mirrors the Australian’s yearning for any woman, and we’re left to wonder if there’s a hierarchy of yearning and how the war may be twisting that yearning into something deadly.

North against South, Buddhist against Catholic, traditional against modern, Communist against Capitalist: in Butler’s stories, these become the lenses for examining the lives and evolving culture of this little known group as they adapt to their new world.

Butler’s narrators are men and women, from both sides of the divide and from all backgrounds, and he varies their voices accordingly. The businessman narrator of the first tale is abrupt and direct. In another, “Fairy Tale”, the narrator is a “dumb Saigon bargirl”, and you can hear her imperfect yet straightforward English as she tells of her life in Saigon and her new but same life in New Orleans, until, in the bar where she dances nude, she meets a man with a long neck. It’s the traditional prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold tale, but Butler has tweaked it enough to make it his own.

“The American Couple” explores the consequences of assimilation, especially through total immersion in the TV culture of the 1970s. In “Preparation” a woman preparing her best friend’s body for burial fights anger and resentment as she recalls their past. The title story is narrated by an old man who had been Hô Chi Minh’s companion in Paris; as this man begins to die, Hô visits him and they discuss their days in the 1920s and the different paths each took.

This book makes a good partner to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990). Read them both to view a critical period in U.S. history from the standpoint of “unimportant” individuals.

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