by Robert Olen Butler, reading at 23rd Avenue Books, Thursday Sept. 23, 7:30 pm
The great thing about postcards is that there simply isn't room to say everything. What's unsaid is sometimes as important as what's written. Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler's new collection Had A Good Time begins with a reproduction of a century-old postcard and its accompanying text.
"This is Earl Sandt of Erie, Pa, in his aeroplane just before it fell," is the factual starting point for a story about a father and son witnessing the death of an aviator, in which the father photographs the plane just moments before it goes down and alters their lives and perceptions.
The stories flesh out a very different era in American life, and many of them hinge on death and disease. "Always, we waited for the first sneeze, the first cough, the first spot on our skin, we waited to be carried away, if not from smallpox then from diphtheria or from pneumonia or from tuberculosis. It was the way of the world," says the narrator of "This is Earl Sandt."
In "Carl and I," an old woman receives a postcard from her tubercular husband who is dying in a sanitarium, and wrestles with the choice of infecting herself with his handkerchief. In "Twins," young Irish sisters cross the sea to escape the famine in their country, only to have their hopes splintered at Ellis Island's Isle of Contagion.
Most of Had a Good Time's stories involve a similarly transformative moment, though some are less grim. "The Ironworkers' Hayride" is a giddy, slapstick story of a bumbling suitor and his overtures toward a girl with a wooden leg. "I Got Married to Milk Can" tells the story of a young, newly married woman entertaining the affections of her former teacher-become-artist. There are also Joyriding wives, a spirited Mexican laundress, and a mother who goes to the trenches to comfort her son--the collection casts a wide net. Butler is a skilled craftsman and a master of voice, but to say these vignettes are "hypnotizing," as the jacket copy does, might be overstating things a bit.