Robert Olen Butler. The Alleys of Eden. New York: Horizon, 1981. Print.
Having read most of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War tales and having loved most of the stories in Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, I thought Butler’s Vietnam novel would be worth checking out. The Alleys of Eden is, with reservations.
As I suggested in an earlier review, Butler is one American writer who actually presents Vietnamese people as developed characters in his Vietnam War era stories. Butler was a naval supply officer in Vietnam during the war, and most of those supply officers who went to Vietnam were trained in the language first. Butler himself became more intimate with the Vietnamese and with Vietnamese expatriates in the United States because of his understanding of the language and culture.
The Alleys of Eden tells of Cliff Wilkes who has deserted his position as an officer for Army Intelligence to live with a Vietnamese woman he has fallen for. One of my all-time favorite short stories is “Fairy Tale” in Butler’s Good Scent collection mentioned above. This novel has echoes of that short story, but its characters are different, and, as they say, character is destiny.
Wilkes lives in a busy side street in Saigon for over four years until the fall of the city in April 1975. Though a student radical before he was drafted and now an army deserter, he is concerned that the North Vietnamese would simply kill him because he was an American and do the same to Lanh, his paramour, because she had been living with an American.
The couple manages to flee, Wilkes taking on an assumed identity. In his four and a half years of living among the Vietnamese and speaking their language, he feels like a man without a country. He belongs in Vietnam with his Vietnamese woman, not back in the USA. It is almost as if both he and Lanh were immigrants to a strange land, that they had been expelled from their own Eden.
Of course, Lanh is completely new to the land and among aliens. The only English she speaks is Saigon bar girl English, and all the Americans are so much bigger than she. Cliff professes his love for her, but, with his legal problems, can they make it in the New World?
The Alleys of Eden, like Butler’s short stories, has a great sensitivity and understanding (might I even say love?) of the Vietnamese people. Cliff could have stayed in Vietnam if it were not for the politics. Because he is a deserter, the American government could be after him, too. He is between two worlds.
Like Fontenot in “Fairy Tale,” Wilkes identifies more with the Vietnamese than he ever did with the American radicals he used to associate with. And Lanh’s life in Vietnam would be virtually impossible to live, even if she were to return and no one knew of her relationship with Cliff. She was an orphan and really had nothing and no one till Cliff came along.
There is one reservation with this short novel. There are many explicit sex acts in this story. It is not pornographic, but it does add a shallowness to the characters. In spite of his identification with things Vietnamese, Cliff really has little more depth than the pot-smoking “radicals” drifting in and out of the story.
Students of American Literature may recall a trend in American fiction after World War I that was known as primitivism. It had the typically bleak outlook of much of realism and naturalism but with a twist. The idea was that the most honest and best portrayals of human nature were from people who for one reason or another were outside the limits of accepted society.
Writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck were especially associated with this idea of people living in a socially “primitive” condition. Characters like the mentally challenged Benjy of Faulkner or Lennie of Steinbeck illustrate this as do the nomadic migrant workers in Of Mice and Men or the migrating Joad family, or even Quentin Compson, the Mississippi boy who finds no place to belong at Harvard. Such people fit in nowhere, but we perhaps get a sense of what really makes people special and what really motivates human beings at the core because they are not part of the social construct that surrounds them.
Cliff and Lanh live that way, too. The Alleys of Eden can be seen as a more modern primitivist work. In that case, it has a more modern point of view which at its core is much sadder. Benjy and the Joads had family. George and Lennie had friendship. Quentin Compson at least sought some transcendence in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It seems all Cliff and Lanh had was sex. To quote a popular song from the sixties: “Is that all there is?”