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A SMALL HOTEL by Robert Olen Butler


by Robert Olen Butler

Pub Date: July 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1987-2
Publisher: Grove

A painful marital breakup stimulates a flow of harsh memories leading toward a decisive climactic choice, in NBA-winner Butler’s emotionally charged, uneven novel (Hell, 2009, etc.).

Though its title alludes to a Broadway show tune about the joys of honeymooning, the subject is the impending divorce of Kelly and Michael Hays, left unaccomplished when she fails to show up in a Louisiana courthouse to sign final papers. Thereafter, we observe the pair in present circumstances and both shared and separate memories, as Michael second-guesses his own rapidly escalating affair with a beautiful younger woman (Laurie) and Kelly reconsiders experiences that have eroded her enchantment with Michael’s confident masculinity and gracefully borne sense of honor and responsibility (as it happens, he’s an attorney). The book waxes and wanes frustratingly, whether in the memory of a drunken Mardi Gras episode (from which he rescued her); Michael’s “clever” marriage proposal (a ludicrously mishandled scene); Michael’s borderline-bathetic recall of having disappointed his tyrannical, macho dad; and Kelly’s far more plaintive memories of inevitable alienation from her withdrawn, unresponsive father. Fleeting echoes of William Styron’s famous first novel Lie Down in Darkness appear, notably in later scenes that document Kelly’s virtually passive swoon into despairing guilt (over a foolish, pointless misadventure with a married man). On balance, this is a fairly short book that feels like a rather longer one, perhaps because we learn much less than we feel we need to know about its principal characters’ inner lives (despite considerable soul-searching). And minor characters like Michael’s new lover Laurie (basically a charmless fantasy figure) and the Hays’ adult daughter Sam barely register on the page.

As the eponymous show tune (from: "Pal Joey") coyly asks, “Not a sign of people. Who wants people?” One answer: Novels do.