Butler's 'Whisper' is erotic and bizarre

February 10, 1994|By Margaria Fichtner | Margaria Fichtner,Knight-Ridder News Service

In these ways, they whisper:

In the path the waitress' fingers trace in the moisture coating a chilled bottle of wine. In the mystery of a little girl's toes, transformed into wiggly green twigs by the shoe store X-ray machine. In the feminine planes and hollows of a skull in the Paris Catacombs. In the incongruity of a bracelet clinking in the background of a foreign-language lesson tape. In the endearing self-importance of a woman resettling herself into a church pew after communion. In the surprising fluff of teased blond hair floating above the steering wheel of the pickup truck with spoilers and an empty gun rack.

As Robert Olen Butler demonstrates in this eerily erotic new novel, the destiny and desires of men flow along the sibilant murmur of women's obsessions, rumors, conspiracies, fears, confessions and pain. " . . . A great metropolis of women are inside me, and they teem into me still," says Mr. Butler's protagonist, Ira Holloway, a man so in thrall to the secrets of the female sex that "I remain forever in this place inside me where a smell of leather or a glimpse of a lovely elbow or shoulder or ear lobe or some movement of air or cast of light thrills me in ways that I cannot put into the safe terms of the mind."

From his small-town youth in Illinois' rust belt in the 1950s through his service in Vietnam and on up to his present life as a family man with a modestly successful public relations career, Ira accepts his carnality with the same familiar ease with which he deals with the softness around his eyes or the small cleft in his chin, as one more element of the sweet tyranny that is his nature.

Indeed, by far the most strikingly humane facet of Ira's character is that he has loved so many women,"in all the great and small ways," who would not even be considered beautiful by others. His ardor illuminates them, grants them equal partnership, a collaborative share in his passion. Now living and dead, terrifying and magical, they stream through Ira's consciousness one by one, still "uniquely themselves. They lived in that landscape together but when I encountered them, they were solely who they were and they were no one else."

Mr. Butler, author of six other novels and winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain," a short-story collection about Vietnamese emigres in Louisiana, is full of ambition and good intentions here. More than a titillating glimpse at one man's psychological and gonadal meanderings, "They Whisper" also is the story of Ira's marriage and its slow disintegration into sexual and spiritual nightmare.

Years after the fact, Ira remembers that his first impression of Fiona Price had been one of laughter, which "seems miraculous to me now, knowing the pain she was hiding." They had met serendipitously, on an Eighth Avenue sidewalk on a day when Fiona's brilliant asymmetrical smile had seemed "so odd and beautiful" to Ira that it made him stagger. Yet, as the two stagger together into love, marriage, parenthood and suburbia, Fiona's childhood demons swarm.

Seven years of Dr. Feelgood's psychotherapy has left her with a dependence on speed but no cure, and as the years pass, her grasp on reason and reality weakens.

Soon, Fiona begins an irrational swirl in and out of the chasms of jealousy, suspicion and guilt. Ira, intent on not upsetting the precarious balance of her temperament, does not even glance at other women in her presence.

Eventually, Fiona's impossible bedroom demands, outlandish religious fervor and zeal over the intellectual development of their son (named John for the only apostle "who wrote of Jesus forgiving the adulteress") no longer qualify as merely excessive. They have become bizarre.

Thankfully, bright, happy sparks fly when we tag along with Ira on his innocent early sexual adventures with Locker Room Blossom and with Amanda, the delight of the Indian burial mound. In addition, Mr. Butler writes from a great well of feeling about Vietnam, Fiona's delivery-room rage and Ira's determination to be a stable, counterbalancing father. His compassionate rendering of Fiona's slide into insanity is intricately calibrated and beautifully restrained.

Unfortunately, though the book's many stream-of-consciousness passages possess poetic grace as well as a sexual explicitness that could steam clams, the technique becomes wearying. In the middle of the longest of these exercises -- a plot-crucial, Faulknerian sentence that gallops on for more than 2,800 words near the end of the book -- we had to retire to the kitchen for a fortifying shot of Earl Grey.

Nonetheless, this new novel handily reinforces the Pulitzer committee's confidence in Mr. Butler and enhances his reputation as a skilled interpreter of the psychology of human dreams and longings. From now on, when he whispers, we shall

listen well.


Title: "They Whisper"

Author: Robert Olen Butler

Publisher: Henry Holt

+!Length, price: 333 pages, $22.50

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