Years ago, a Vermont friend I was staying with was awakened by an early call from a neighbor: “George, your sheep are on my porch.” Sure enough, when we drove over, the five sheep were milling with ovine self-righteousness on the deck outside. Inside, the neighbor, who wrote for the Star or the National Enquirer--I don’t remember which--was working the phone for a story about a wealthy Texan who claimed to have six wives, two of them Martians.
The pieces in Robert Olen Butler’s “Tabloid Dreams” carry such titles as “Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis,” “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” and “Woman Struck by Car Turns into Nymphomaniac.” They take the airy, absurd, kidding-with-a-straight-face form of the fantasies on supermarket magazine racks. The sheep on the porch are real, though.
Beneath the zaniness of the stories, Butler plants an obscure human anguish or need. In the best ones, the extravagance of the premise forces up the buried hopelessness of the sorrow. In others, the link is more sentimental and more obviously manipulated. Virtually all are arresting at the start; some grow from there, others dwindle.
Butler, author of the prize-winning collection, “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” which dealt with Vietnamese survivors and refugees from the war, uses the wild tabloid format most effectively to tell stories of the abused: an abandoned child, a betrayed wife or husband, a woman living a menial and hopeless life.
Attention would likely not be paid, to paraphrase “Death of a Salesman,” if the misery were recounted on its own level. On the other hand, “Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband” is bound to make us notice.
The narrator, dazzled by her initially romantic and attentive husband, has become thoroughly cowed by his subsequent contempt and infidelities. When he abuses her verbally, she slaps herself; and one day she does it so hard that her glass eye falls out.
This eye, she discovers as it rolls on the floor, possesses a vision of its own. Revolving, it focuses on her. “Aren’t you pretty,” she thinks for the first time ever. Eventually she leaves it in a glass in their bedroom while she goes to work as a court reporter. As she begins to transcribe the testimony of another abused wife, the glass eye shows her husband having sex in their bed with another woman.
That this should free her may seem an emotional gimmick; and in some of the other pieces the transaction tends to be one. But though not one of the best, the story succeeds. Butler’s purpose, here as elsewhere, is not to say that a “miracle” will remedy abuse but to denounce the horror of an abuse that only a miracle could remedy.
“Nine-Year-Old-Boy Is World’s Youngest Hit Man” is drier, wilder and, because of it, more effective. The child, whose father has walked out and whose slatternly mother never gets dressed, prowls Manhattan’s Tompkins Square, avoiding perverts and muggers. Ivan, a Russian immigrant and gangster, befriends him, flatters him, shows him a pistol and asks if he can use it and whether he knows how to get to Brooklyn.
After practicing, the boy is sent off to Brighton Beach, where he pulls the gun out of a brown paper bag and kills a rival Russian gangster and his bodyguard. He goes on two more such errands and is paid $200 for each. Before each shooting, he is just a kid with a lunch bag. Afterward, who in Brighton Beach is going to tell the police?
Each time he fantasizes that it is his father he is killing. He is already more confident; he asks his mother why she doesn’t get dressed, and she tells him she has no clothes and would need at least $10,000 to buy some. He demands it for the next job. Ivan protests the ingratitude and argues that he has been like a father. The result is predictable. Again, the story’s near-comic outlandishness is turned on its head: It is a 9-year-old’s maltreated life that is outlandish.
One of the best stories, told with poignancy and dry humor, is that of a 40-year-old hairdresser who lives in Bovary, Ala.
Her husband has left her; she has no prospects and only a cat for company; she can’t sleep at night and drives the malls. At 4 one morning she sees an oddly shaped figure in the parking-lot: tiny waist, big bald head, eyes the size of teacups and eight fingers on each hand. He is Desi, an infinitely polite spaceman who is doing research on the human race. Watching and listening to the hairdresser with his special powers, he has fallen passionately in love.
It is a lovely courtship. Desi is odd-looking, she admits, but no odder than her cat. When his 16 fingers, each equipped with suckers, take hold of her hands, she melts.
“When you’ve got 16 cute little suckers going at you, it’s hard to make any real tough self-denying kind of decisions and that’s when I end up with a bona fide spaceman lover. And enough said, as we like to end touchy conversations around the hairdressing parlor, except I will tell you that he was bald all over and it’s true what they say about bald men.”
They go off on a spaceship jaunt that seems no more than a day or two, though when they get back it has been two weeks. (Desi has thoughtfully arranged for another spaceman to feed the cat.) He tells her that he has been transferred to another part of the galaxy; she must decide at once whether to come with him. She hesitates, he is gone, and she is left with her regret. Again, the extravagance of the story is a way to amplify a condition not in the least extravagant: the fantasy-regrets that flicker in so many deprived and not so deprived lives.
All of the stories are, to some extent, whimsical contrivances. Some are not well contrived. I did not much care for one in which John F. Kennedy, having survived the assassination bullets, attends the auction of Jackie’s estate; or another about a lethal cookie baking contest. In this collection, to use a musical comparison, Butler fashions music boxes, not wind chimes. Yet with the best--including a ravishing narration by the love-stricken spirit of a man drowned on the Titanic--there are ghosts in the tiny machines.