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Book Review: Tabloid Dreams by Robert Olen Butler

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After winning a Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 short story collection of Vietnam-based stories, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler followed it up with a collection of a dozen tales, Tabloid Dreams, based upon the sort of headlines ripped from the tabloid weekly newspapers one finds on checkout lines.

After a lackluster career as a novelist, Butler seemed to be verging on becoming a great writer for, even though A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain had its ups and downs, there were two or three genuinely great short stories.

The work in Tabloid Dreams, however, seems to manifest that A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain was an aberration, and Butler is merely a competent writer who lucked into the Pulitzer — one of the rare times in recent decades that the award was given to a worthwhile book.

Tabloid Dreams is a mediocre book, at best. The tales are basically all summed up by their titles-cum-conceits, and are told in the first person. Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed follows an Englishman after his death on the ship, and decades of his afterlife as part of the evaporation and rain cycle of water. He ends up trapped in a waterbed as a horny couple have sex, and thinks of a woman he fell in love with before the ship went down. He urges her to get in a lifeboat, and cannot get her out of his mind. It’s a solid tale, but much too long, although it does have a solid ending. 

In Woman Uses Glass Eye To Spy On Philandering Husband the tale starts off well, but Butler simply does not know how to end the tale, so it just sort of stops. It’s a very poor story, and little above the tabloid level it tries to spoof. 

Boy Born With Tattoo Of Elvis follows its lead character obsessing over how his peers will react to his freakish birthmark. There really is no point to this tale. Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self On Fire has a nice conceit, and a solid end, but meanders a bit too much, as the lead character struggles with her own existence’s meaninglessness.

In Jealous Husband Returns In Form Of Parrot, a woman buys the reincarnation of her husband takes him home, where he watches her sex life with her new boyfriend, fixates on his human existence’s errors, his lust for her, and his inability to convert his still coherent thoughts beyond the usual parrotic squawks. In many ways this voyeurism is a pale echo of perhaps the best story in Scent, Love, so it unwittingly recapitulates- in its inferiority to the earlier tale, all the flaws this whole book has in relation to Butler’s earlier, superior book.

It also has a very bad ending, which is perhaps the greatest flaw in all the tales in this collection. Butler sets up the ideas in the tales with a brio, but builds no real three dimensional characters, so has no realistic ‘out’ from their predicaments to offer.

Woman Struck By Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac finds a New York Public Relations hack called a nymphomaniac by a tabloid, who gets revenge on the publication’s editor. There is no insight nor even humor in the tale. Butler is at his vapid, postmodern worst in this story. Here he does the typical PoMo schtick of dropping vapid pop cultural references that have already faded into obscurity. Note how a decade after the book’s publication so much of what is stated here is not relevant, and some as meaningless as the courtly intrigues off a John Dryden’s verse:

One day in spring I stepped into the crosswalk at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street and perhaps I was distracted by the thought of the Jenny Jones show, wishing it was the Oprah show instead, but Oprah doesn’t do the real sleazy subjects, bless her pure and, for the moment, top-rated heart. So when your author is a Manhattan psychologist with a practice in masturbation therapy and a book called Touch Yourself, Cure Yourself, you take what you can get. In this case she was to be the resident expert on the I Have More Fun with Me than with My Partner segment.

  The tale then careens to its weak end, loaded with fetishism, but a well-worded last sentence that sums up the schizoid writing that the book is filled with. Note how vapidly the tale’s end is set up by banalities:

  And he went down, onto his knees, and he bent to me and he began to kiss my toes and I thank my gypsy cab driver for teaching me how pleasurable all that can be and my hand was on the meteor and I picked it up and it was very heavy, very heavy indeed, and its heaviness sent a thrill through me, a sweet wet thrill, and I looked down at the straight white part in his hair, the very place where this meteor was about to strike, and I thought how sexy. How truly sexy is the secret shape of a man’s brain.

  It’s a big comedown for both the tale, and its writer, but too typical of the stories in the book.

  But, he gets even worse in the next tale, Nine-Year Old Boy Is World’s Youngest Hitman. Yes, it’s about a preteen murderer, but it’s so unrealistic, and so filled with bad, cartoonish Brooklyn accents that it reads almost like an early Martin Scorsese film project that was rejected. Dialect writing almost always fails, and Butler’s lack of an ear for it, and lack of a real story, doom the reader of this dismal tale.

Every Man She Kisses Dies is a bit better, and has an almost Biblical resonance. Yet, the tale’s lead finds her ‘talent’ for death wastes away when she finds true love. What could have been a nice political commentary on the sexes and social-sexual relationships, however forced, instead descends into pabulum. The end, again, is execrable.

Doomsday Meteor Is Coming is better still, if only because it’s lighter and silly, and it ends ambivalently — as we do not know if the end truly is nigh, or not, but it’s nowhere near a tale that is resonant and will stick with a reader ten minutes after it’s read. Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover is a tale that was later expanded into a novel by Butler, although for what reason is unfathomable, as that tabloid grist- the alien abduction, gets a twist as abductor and abductee meet in a Wal-Mart parking lot. There are some mild tee-hees, but they cannot fill a short story, much less a novel.

In JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction, the still living ex-President goes to Sotheby’s auction house to voyeuristicly view his wife’s belongings. The tale is as banal as its premise, and ends very weakly.

The last tale, Titanic Survivors Found In Bermuda Triangle, is told from the point of view of the woman that the lead character from the first tale puts on the lifeboat. She is depressed, goes back to the moment of the ship’s sinking, and imagines her congress with the man who saved her. While the end is a good scene, Butler writes it in the most bathetic and banal fashion, which is emblemic of the whole book. The premises are thin, but a better writer would have deepened and truly ‘realized’ the characters more.

  Readers never connect with the leads because they are never real characters merely in outrageous scenarios. They are just puppets that ride the wave of the tales’ conceits- sort of third rate (at best) Twilight Zone episodes that lack depth and all end weakly.

  It is a truism that tales that start and end well can get away with muddled middles, but those that end badly can rarely be good, and never near greatness. Pulitzer Prize Winner Loses Touch And Becomes Third-Rate Pulp Fiction Hack may be an interesting enough title for a story- and one that would work well in this book, but as the reality embodied in a work of art it’s all too real, and all too depressing. Tabloid Dreams a profound disappointment for a writer with potential, and readers who are searching for real literature in this deliterate age.

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