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The trauma of war effects succeeding generations.

Perfume River: A Novel - Robert Olen Butler

Perfume River, Robert Olen Butler, author and narrator

When the book opens, an older couple, Robert and Darla Quinlan are having dinner in the New Leaf Co-op.  They are engaged in conversation and are quite comfortable in each other’s company. When a strange man enters who seems disheveled and obviously homeless, Robert Quinlan, aged 70, notices him. He thinks he might be a Vietnam War veteran, like himself, but he is not old enough. Coincidentally, this man and Robert, share the shortened version of the name Robert. The “out of place” man, Bob Weber, is not a veteran, but is the son of one. It was his father Calvin who served during the Vietnam War. Calvin was a stern, demanding man who had expected a certain kind of aggressive behavior from his son. His idea of what made a real man was not compatible with Bob’s personality. What made him most proud and happy about his son, was his prowess with a weapon. Bob’s interaction with his father had been conflicted and Bob was now quite disturbed. Because of therapy, Bob is sometimes able to cover up his difficulty in processing information properly. If he tries very hard and listens to the right voices in his head, the voices that calm him down, he sees reality and does not hear his angry father. His father’s voice incites him. For some reason, Robert finds himself drawn to Bob, and he wants to help him.

Robert, 70, and his brother Jimmy, 68, had a fraught relationship with their father, too. Jimmy is a draft dodger who escaped to Canada with his girlfriend Linda when he was 21. He remains in Canada, the safe haven for those who wanted to avoid the much contested Vietnam War and has been estranged from his family ever since. He and his wife Linda have an open marriage which has gone through many stages. He has recently become involved with a girlfriend named Heather and Linda is involved with the husband of a friend, causing a crisis in that marriage. Heather is very young and seems more like his grandchild than his mate.  

Robert, in an effort to gain his father’s love and approval, enlisted in the service, but he intended to avoid the fighting with a desk job. He was sent to Vietnam where he became involved with Lien, a young Vietnamese woman.  Their relationship had an enormous effect on him, and it has remained a secret for decades. Bob’s father William is 88 years old. He served during World War II and he, like Calvin, has particular ideas about how men should behave. He doesn’t give his love freely. He is disappointed with both of his son’s actions. Peggy, his wife, never shows outward disagreement with her husband, as was the custom of the times; she voices no reproach to him or her sons and does not defy William even when he causes his son Jimmy to abandon all of them. He demands courage from his sons. Although his mannerisms and expectations made it difficult for either of his sons to feel either approved of or well loved by him, the grandchildren and great grandchildren see him differently. Robert’s son Kevin loves his grandfather, as does Kevin’s 20 year old son Jake, William’s great grandchild. Jake brings the story to a conclusion that takes the story full circle back to its beginning in its theme of war.

William has been injured very badly in a terrible fall. He is in the hospital in grave condition. Their mother Peggy thinks it is now time to reconcile the family, and she asks Robert to try and contact Jimmy. She has tried but has been unsuccessful in convincing him to return. Will Robert be able to find the courage to reach out to him across the years and miles? Will Jimmy be able to overlook the family’s history? Will he be able to forgive his father?

As the story unravels, it revolves largely around the lives of Robert, Bob and Jimmy as they try to come to terms with their memories of their family life, the effects of war on their soldier fathers, and their relationship with others because of that upbringing.  The difficulties they experienced are revealed through their memories of events and conversations with their spouses and others who interact with them. Each one’s life had been deeply affected by the politics of the times.

Is war ever good? Is it sometimes necessary? What kind of person makes war possible? The effects of war on these men altered them so much. Those that returned were no longer the same person that left. It was difficult for them to acclimate to normal life. They are hardened and became secretive about what took place, sometimes ashamed of their behavior, sometimes confused by it. Some of the things they witnessed and or participated in were too difficult for them to discuss honestly with anyone, and continued to haunt them long after they returned home. The memories went on to have an often detrimental effect on their behavior and family relationships. In turn, their “sins” were then visited upon their children. Should a child please a parent or himself? Should a child become something else entirely to simply please a parent in order to feel loved by that parent?

The relationship between father and son and sibling to sibling is deftly explored and contrasted through their thoughts and introspection as they try to solve their problems. Because there are so many underlying secrets slowly revealed, the behavior of a character is often misinterpreted. Incomplete information causes others to sometimes jump to uninformed conclusions and incorrect judgments. Only Bob, however, makes judgments that are completely irrational, at times, but all make faulty judgments at times. Bob is simply the compilation of all of the ideas the author presents. He expresses the results of those ideas in their most extreme form.

The tale is dark and sometimes depressing, but it is very well written, and it inspires deep thought about war, military service and parental relationships. While it seems to be somewhat of an apology to the soldiers of the Vietnam War, on the one hand, those who were very much maligned for their service, it also obviously is a condemnation of war, since it illustrates the terrible effect it had on those involved and on those future generations that followed them, as well, even long after the war has ended.

The novel has no chapter breaks and sometimes one characters voice fades into another’s. The narrative builds slowly to a crescendo at various points in the story but then descends again when the tension quickly eases. Each character suffers from conflicting emotions, some more intense than others. Each character seems to have unhealed, invisible wounds because of their paternal relationships. The old pain and grievances still have tremendous power over them. Each has a need to confess their perceived sins to someone, in order to be forgiven. Each wanted to be accepted and loved.  Each has shut out painful thoughts or people from their lives. The war and military service, or lack thereof, has had a dark effect on each of them. Each has felt betrayed at some point. Although each of the main male characters questions his judgment, and often suffers from self-doubt and occasionally has mood swings, it is only Bob is noticeably disturbed and permanently damaged. Bob hears voices. Bob, who was the most indirectly involved in any war, is the one most injured by it. Bob is homeless, alone and somewhat lost as he tries to navigate down the road of his life in his deranged mental state.

Each character experiences similar emotions but handles them uniquely. The book makes you think about the nature of war, what makes a hero and what makes a coward and even makes you consider whether or not a war is ever necessary. It makes you wonder how the negative effects of that kind of traumatic experience can be handled far better so it does not revisit future generations. Perhaps it is better to avoid war altogether, if ever possible. 
In the end, everyone discovers that unresolved issues remain unresolved after death. Can this premise bring them all back together again and reconcile their family relationships as their war wounds, emotional and physical, that have remained hidden for decades are now revealed? Secrets have separated them, will the truth reunite them? Is forgiveness possible?