A wonderfully varied third collection from Pulitzer-winner Butler (Fair Warning, 2002, etc.) investigates diverse lives—and deaths—early in the 20th century.
Each of these 15 stories opens with a reproduction of a vintage postcard, including its handwritten message, and from these often cryptic texts the author imagines an entire fictional world. Whether describing a hostile bellhop and an unhappy aristocrat (“Hotel Touraine”) or following a woman to France to visit her son at the WWI battlefront (“Mother in the Trenches”), Butler faultlessly captures the plainspoken, springy cadences of American speech a hundred years ago. It’s a quieter time than our own, though no less complicated. In 1914, an American journalist covering the US occupation of Vera Cruz walks by corpses without a thought (“My business is getting stories. You’re dead, and your story’s over”) but is brought up short by his laundress, “The One in White,” who scorns his feeble excuse that the Marines are here to liberate her country, pointing out that all the dead are Mexicans. “Hiram the Desperado” terrorizes his classmates and swaggers with 12-year-old toughness, but he’s still naive enough to miss the fact that the unmarried schoolteacher he has a crush on is pregnant. Death haunts every tale: young husbands die of TB, aviators crash their fledgling planes, a 48-year-old man dies of a heart attack while reading the Sunday New York Times at Coney Island. Yet there’s delightful humor in stories like “The Ironworkers’ Hayride,” where an absurdly self-conscious narrator meets his match in a self-confident beauty with a wooden leg; or in “I Got Married to Milk Can,” about a new bride renouncing her romantic dreams of running off with an artist when he proves to be an “advanced” painter of the Ash Can school. There’s plenty of sorrow, but plenty of exhilaration too, thanks to these characters’ grit and full-bodied humanity.
Assured, accomplished, and another intriguing change of pace from an adventurous writer who refuses to be pigeonholed.