THE ALLEYS OF EDEN by Robert Olen Butler

THE ALLEYS OF EDEN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Cliff Wilkes, an early Vietnam arrival (as one of the original American ""advisors""), has been in hiding for five years--ever since his involvement in a torture-death turned him into a deserter; his refuge has been the room of a Saigon bar-girl named Lanh. But, as Butler's first novel begins, the South is being overrun, Saigon is emptying--and Cliff and Lanh are getting onto a departing helicopter, though they decide to split up temporarily because of Cliff's deserter past. So: Cliff takes a false name, claiming to be a journalist who lost his papers. . . while, back in the States, Lanh is relocated through social welfare agencies to a small rural Illinois town named Speedway. And when Cliff joins her there (still somewhat on the lam), the relationship in the book's first half--Cliff the refugee, Lanh the protector--is reversed. In fact, Cliff now finds a Lanh who comes to life only with the one other Vietnamese family in town, the Binhs; otherwise she keeps to their rented room, all but mute. A pathetic situation? Yes--but Butler makes more of it than that, thanks to some wise, novelistic strokes. He keeps Lanh an unsentimental, seasoned character--no waif. He avoids the usual Sayonara-style pidgin conversations by having Cliff and Lanh speak Vietnamese (translated, of course, into articulate English). And he arranges for Cliff to be constantly, painfully aware of the sociological/sexual matrix upon which his days with Lanh precariously rest. Admittedly, the book is now and then overly doubled-up inside of Cliff's thoughts--connecting, intensifying realizations--and at those times it is annoyingly pawky. But this is still one of the more specific Vietnam novels, taking into account the unreality of over-there as well as back-here--something which Butler achieves mainly by giving all his players a spare, unfrilled dignity. A promising debut.

Pub Date: Nov. 23rd, 1981
Publisher: Horizon