Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #2, Spring & Summer 1998]

Tabloid Dreams
By Robert Olen Butler
Henry Holt and Company
New York, NY, 1996

Just Above Water
By Louis Jenkins
Holy Cow! Press
Duluth, Minnesota, 1997

Reviewed by John Lehman

In Tabloid Dreams, Robert Olen Butler takes a gimmick, twists it into metaphor and then spins that into magic that takes your breath away. The gimmick: use those grabby headlines from grocery store tabloids as the basis of short stories (that in their use of imagery are more like extended prose poems). The metaphor? Remember your Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which a scarlet letter, birthmark, or maypole take on metaphysical significance? Would you believe a woman's glass eye, a tattoo of Elvis, or one of those Ross Perot-like alien invaders could do the same? And, the magic Butler achieves results from his delving beneath the surface of human experience and exploring that mystical lure at the heart of great literature, trash, and the everyday drama of life. Then why does Tabloid Dreams fail?

Most of the individual stories succeed wonderfully. For example, there's the surprising pathos of John Kennedy (not killed in Dallas, but held incognito by CIA agents because his brain is damaged in a way that he no longer is able to keep secrets) attending the auction of his and Jackie's belongings. We feel, along with him, the loss, not of a life, but of a lifetime full of "the things" people want:
I go to the end of the line and my back is hurting, but out here in public, the pain reassures me somehow. A woman up ahead in the line turns her face idly toward me. She has her hair the color of the old Red Grange model football we used in Hyannis the same autumn I made love on the overstuffed chair in my Senate office, to a woman who was all bones and freckles and teeth and her thick hair was the same color, a roan color, and she sat on my lap and thrashed her hair around me. She has spent time with me often these past years, in my memory. And this woman in line turns her eyes briefly to me and then her attention passes on. She is perhaps thirty-five. In my memory I am thirty-five, but this woman before me now sees only an old man. But I'm still sitting on that overstuffed chair and the leather squeaks beneath me and I'm sweating and smelling the woman's hair and I tell her about its color, the color of a Red Grange football, and she laughs. The woman in line laughs now. She is with someone near her, but I don't look to see who it is. I watch her face dilate sweetly in laughter and if she were standing next to me, I know I would speak to her of this other woman, whose name I can't remember and whose eyes I can't remember, though I've tried in these years of exile. I would like to remember her eyes, because remembering these other things as vividly as I do makes me feel as if the memory of her eyes should be here too but it got put aside and then sold off or given away and it was a big mistake. I want it back.

A victim of the Titanic becomes the water that drowns him, and he speaks to us through a waterbed as sleepers "swim" overhead with no place to go. A woman court recorder at a divorce proceedings sees her own husband and his lover through the glass eye she has left behind on the table next to their bed. And the tattoo of Elvis a young boy is born with is a symbol of the soul.

The stories, like tabloid headlines, cause us to challenge the author to somehow make us believe them. When Butler not only does this but pulls us through into a realm of magic realism that is half prose and half poetry, we ourselves feel transformed. But, why has he taken on the narrow constraints of this particular challenge? To show he can do it? He's trifling with the talent he has. Read one story, or two, and be transported beyond the limits of the short story. But more is less. To read the entire book is to feel, after a certain point, you are wasting your time with a writer capable of great art who is fixated on performing party tricks instead.

It's just the opposite with the poetry of Louis Jenkins in Just Above Water (twelve poems of which are also featured in the current issue of Rosebud ). Each of these pieces begins in ordinariness or, to quote Robert Frost in his essay on the pleasure of poetry, this is poetry that "begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life -- not necessarily a great clarification... but in a momentary stay against confusion."

With Jenkins the subject is never abstract, it's the specifics of his life, your life, my life: a tool board with a place for everything, March ("It hadn't occurred to me until someone at work brought it to my attention, that this winter has been going on for eleven years...") and the laundromat ("You're here now because of poor planning. This could have been done at a more congenial time... Hard to believe but this is your real life, right now, watching laundry go around"). Here is "The Life of the Poet," read it, then read it again:

I once believed that behind all the things I did, or more often, failed to do, there was a great moral purpose, or at least some coherent principle, a raison d'etre. If there is such a principle it has never become quite clear to me. Instead, over the years, I have managed to take a random selection of bad habits and herd them together into a life. Also, in order to disguise my absolute laziness I have mastered the age-old art of appearing to be productive when, actually, this is the only thing I'm doing. (Republicans suspected as much all along.) Someone comes up to my desk and I get busy scribbling, totally preoccupied. "What? Oh, I'm sorry..." In my haste to appear industrious I find I have written "...and herd them together into a wife."

I don't know who would pick up a book of prose poems with enthusiasm. They're not stories or a novel you can lose yourself in on a summer afternoon or "real poetry" like the kind someone memorizes or recites at a New Age wedding. Too bad. I remember a writer once describing the short story as a spotlight shining on a crowd -- part of the subject illuminated, but the rest to the left and right (what happens before the story and after), shadowy so that you have to squint to know all that's there. So with these fifty-six prose poems of unpretentious humor, skewed observation, and infectious Midwestern warmth. Each is a story and together they are more engrossing than a novel. They're like widening circles rippling out from rocks along the lake shore.

In the last issue of Cambridge Book Review I advised you to go out and buy In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff. If you haven't already, put Just Above Water on that must-own list also. It's the kind of book you could have on the table next to your favorite chair and sample from randomly for the rest of your life. All you need, after you buy these two books, is that uninhabited desert island... or eleven more years of winter.

Order Tabloid Dreams from
Other titles by Robert Olen Butler.

Order Just Above Water from
Other titles by Louis Jenkins.


John Lehman and his wife, Talia Schorr, own the Night Heron Bed, Books and Breakfast in the Cambridge-Rockdale area of southern Wisconsin. John is author of Shrine of the Tooth Fairy, a collection of poetry, and publisher of Rosebud, a national magazine for people who enjoy good writing. For a free sample issue of Rosebud call or write: Rosebud, P.O. Box 459, Cambridge, Wisconsin 53523. 1-800-786-5669.

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