Robert Olen Butler, Tabloid Dreams (Henry Holt and Company, New York, NY, 1996)
Robert Olen Butler, Mr. Spaceman (Grove Press, New York, NY, 2000)

Tabloids are full to bursting with the juice of existence. If nothing else, they illustrate the sheer messiness of human life. Imagine what would happen if tabloids were written by really fine writers instead of hacks. Well imagine no more, for Robert Olen Butler has done it.

Robert Olen Butler made his name as a writer of sensitive, minutely observed accounts of Vietnamese refugees adjusting to the culture of the American South. His collection of short stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993.

Seemingly out of the blue, he produced Tabloid Dreams, a collection of short stories inspired by bizarre tabloid headlines. In Tabloid Dreams, the dross (or more accurately, dreck) of popular culture is transmuted into the pure gold of fantasy. Butler uses the old tabloid standbys — Elvis, infidelity, alien abductions — to create a strange and sometimes breathtaking collection of short stories. It's as though Doris Lessing were given the task of scripting The Teletubbies, or Saul Bellow set himself the task of writing The Great American Cereal Box Blurb.

"Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed" combines a waterbed, a horny couple and the ghost of a very proper English Civil Servant who drowned on the Titanic. His tale of transcendent, life-changing love is undercut by the frenzied attempts of the couple using the waterbed to ignore the voice from beyond the grave and get it on. Somehow this bizarre encounter morphs into one of the most touching love stories I've ever read.

"Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover" is the story of big-hearted Edna Bradshaw's painful choice between staying with her dysfunctional Southern family or eloping with "Desi," her 8-fingered alien admirer, whom she met in the parking lot of Bovary, Alabama's all-night Walmart SuperCenter.

The last story in the collection, "Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle" is a continuation and completion of "Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed." The Englishman's lost love turns up still young and alive some 80 years after the disaster.

The other stories combine the outlandish with fundamental human emotions and situations to create a haunting blend that is both very familiar and very strange. Titles include "Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband," "Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis," "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire," "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," "Woman Struck By Car Turns into Nymphomaniac," "Nine-Year Old Boy Is World's Oldest Hit Man," "Every Man She Kisses Dies," "Doomsday Meteor Is Coming," and "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction."

The only things missing are fad diets and Nessie. It's a mind-expanding trip through America's psychic junkyards.

Mr. Spaceman is a continuation of the Tabloid Dreams story, "Someone Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover." Desi is an alien anthropologist on a field trip to earth. His mission is to collect people's thoughts and memories for an extra-terrestrial archive. After nearly a century of fieldwork, Desi has begun to "go native." When he meets zaftig hairdresser Edna Bradshaw, it is love at first sight. The book begins with Desi settling down to a life of married bliss with Edna.

Edna is a woman whose vocabulary and knowledge of the world is limited to tabloids and daytime TV but whose soul is boundless. Desi, meanwhile, comes from a race that communicates without spoken language. His knowledge of English is derived from radio and TV broadcasts and the thoughts of his informants. In Mr. Spaceman, Robert Olen Butler constantly wrestles with the problem of depicting characters with stunted vocabularies and rich internal lives. Much of the comedy in the book arises from the couple's struggle to express profound emotion in the insipid vocabulary of American pop culture. Another source of comedy is the many misunderstandings due to culture, such as when Edna tells Desi that he's "sweet enough to eat," and Desi fears that cannibalism may be a part of human mating practices.

The ironic contrast between Desi's lowbrow way of talking and his highbrow way of thinking may be jarring to some readers. This disconnect between Desi's thoughts and his speech is very apparent in a scene where he attempts to calm a crowd of fearful earthlings:

I turn now and I suddenly understand a figure of speech I have always found distasteful. All eyes are on me. I could never overcome my impulse to visualize that literally. But now I understand. I feel these eyes as separate, palpable points of pressure.... In this moment I find the always elusive words of this planet even more difficult to shape in my mouth. 'Hi,' I say. "My name is Desi. I am a friendly guy. There is a Kind of a Hush All Over the World Tonight. I Would Like to Teach the World to Sing. I Would Like to Buy the World a Coke.'

Desi and Edna's happy home life is threatened by a directive from on high, for Desi is given a special assignment by his supervisors. He is ordered to reveal himself to the world at the crack of midnight in the year 2000. World reaction will determine whether his people will seek a closer relationship with those of the Earth. As a test run, Desi hijacks a modern-day ship of fools, a busload of representative Americans on their way to a riverboat gambling casino. He figures that revealing himself to the twelve passengers will give him a better idea of what to expect.

The rest of the novel is interlaced with Desi's musings and the reflections of his informants. Sad to say, Desi has picked up the most boring busload of representative Americans you can imagine. Butler attempts to use their reminiscences as a way of encapsulating the whole of the twentieth century experience. Their Studs Terkel-style oral histories, however, are too flat and matter-of-fact. They bust the bubble of fantasy with their uninspired nattering about subjects we've all heard too much about. Do I need one more voice in my head babbling about O.J., Waco, the Kennedy assassination, and conspiracies? Do I need to answer that question?! The story is just too light to carry the load of The Twentieth Century Experience.

The tale reaches its climax when Citrus/Judith, a Christian fundamentalist turned Goth girl from Waco, Texas, announces that Desi is the new Christ come to die and redeem the world. Her religious hysteria causes Desi to panic because he fears that he will either be lynched or torn apart for relics when he makes his presence known on New Year's Eve. Faced with the choice of probable death if he obeys orders or permanent exile from his planet if he disobeys, Desi finds a solution to his dilemma that is surprising, highly entertaining and, on reflection, inevitable.

Mr. Spaceman is a fun romp that spreads itself a little too thin in the final chapers as Butler attempts to make what is essentially a comic novel do double duty as a Statement about The Human Condition on the edge of the new millennium.


[Liz Milner]