'Mr. Spaceman': U.S.A. centennial

January 02, 2000|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

"Mr. Spaceman," by Robert Olen Butler. Atlantic Monthly Press. 288 pages. $23.

Putatively, this novel is the account of an alien, a creature who goes by the name of Desi, on the eve of the millennium. We meet him in his spaceship, hovering over Louisiana just after he has beamed up a group of people on a bus that was going to take them on a gambling junket. The spaceman has eight digits on each arm and leg, no ears, large eyes.

Desi is married to an Earth woman, a lady from Bovary, Ala., who cooks for the members of the gambling junket who arrive on the spaceship. What she cooks are "cheese sticks" and "pecan balls." For those of us who live north of the Mason Dixon line, a pecan ball is not described so much as suggested. "Now this is a pecan ball," says the lady from Bovary, Ala., to her spaceman husband. "Dried beef isn't good enough for me when I make it. This baby has three pounds of real beef jerky."

Well, one thing is certain, and it is this: that whatever else this book is about, one of the subtexts is the horrors of deep Southern cooking.

But "Mr. Spaceman" is about other items, and they are quite important and quite moving, too. Desi, the spaceman, speaks a kind of mall-media talk, a combination of phrases from jingles, mail order catalogue copy, and the signs one sees in a Wal-Mart, all of which, when used here to try to describe something more delicate than rank commerce, reveal the extent to which this commercial language has infected our lives.

For instance, when the spaceman tries to describe his wife, it sounds as though he has been reading a Victoria's Secret catalogue. "She sits beside me in the bed, radiant in her Antique Pink Bare Essential Babydoll with the Eye-Catching uplift of the Underwire Cups and the Adorable Enticement of the Cleavage Ribbon Ties."

This is fine, as far as it goes, but it seems to be a gimmick that once understood becomes a little tiring. But what is not tiring, and what is the book's greatest strength, is the use of other voices. These are the accounts of each person that the spaceman has, ah, abducted.

Each of these stories is told in the first person, and each shows the author's great talent. There are many of these stories, but the one that I found most moving was an account of a Vietnamese family that is sitting around the kitchen table deciding which American names they are going to adopt, since no one can possibly pronounce a transliterated Vietnamese name.

This scene is gracefully and economically done, and in a few pages the vitality and the horror of the American experience, or that for immigrants, is perfectly invoked. There are other stories, too, that have this variety of effect, the account of a woman whose father is a religious fanatic, for instance, or the story of a zoot suit riot in Chicago.

And what is the ultimate effect of such stories, told in such a way? Well, as odd as it sounds, the overall effect is more like Chaucer than you would think, and if this book is successful, it is as a variety of modern Canterbury tales, in which each guest tells a story. Here, these tales are profound, and taken together they comprise a vision, an informed one at that, of just what has been happening to Americans over the past hundred years.

Craig Nova is author of 10 novels, including "The Good Son," "Tornado Alley," and "The Universal Donor." His most recent book is "Brook Trout and the Writing Life." His work has been translated into nine languages. Nova has received many awards, including an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He is at work on a new book and on a screen adaptation of "The Good Son."

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