WABASH by Robert Olen Butler


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The limpest Butler novel yet: a melodrama set in Wabash, Illinois--among the barely-hanging-on steel-mill workers there during the Depression--in which marital alienation echoes the victimization and pawnship of one decent man turned crazy. Jeremy Cole is still working, but sees devastation around him: suicides, poverty, homelessness. He finds an attractive voice in a fellow worker and political agitator, Nick--and earnestly finds himself going to greater, more violent lengths of action than the activists themselves. Meanwhile, back home, wife Deborah is enduring a cold hell of no physical affection (Jeremy hasn't touched her since their small daughter Elizabeth died a few years before) and trying to understand why her mother and aunts do not get along (one aunt, turned Catholic, has been totally ostracized). The first few scenes with the women, Deborah's kin, have a fragile oddness and urgency equal to Butler at his best (The Alleys of Eden, 1981); the grandmother, for instance, writes strange letters to the rats that have entered her house, telling them to leave right now. But when Deborah continues the letters after her grandmother's death, using them as a vehicle for sublimation, the book turns plain silly--especially since Jeremy simultaneously is barrelling headlong toward a foul-up predestined enough to make even Sophocles say Oh, come on! Schematic, cardboard, very breathy fiction.

Pub Date: March 13th, 1987
Publisher: Knopf