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Unlike so many other Vietnam veterans who deal with the war primarily through the eyes of American combatants, Robert Olen Butler, an Army translator in Saigon in 1971, has opted to create a much wider spectrum of plot considerations and characters in “The Deep Green Sea” (Henry Holt, $23) to populate his fictive world.

“A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” for instance, was a collection of 15 stories told in the voices of Vietnamese refuges, seven of them women, who have been transplanted from the Mekong Delta region of their homeland to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, where Butler, as it happens, teaches creative writing at McNeese State University.

In the inter-connected pieces of that collection, it is the Vietnamese who are tormented by images from the past, they who are wary of their hosts, and it is they who suffer sexual anxieties, not the Americans veterans, who appear as little more than essential counterpoints in Butler’s narrative structure.

Butler’s first novel, “The Alleys of Eden” (1981), tells of an American soldier and a Vietnamese prostitute who seek refuge in the United States. “On Distant Ground” (1995) focuses on an American intelligence officer who returns to Vietnam after the war in search of a love child he had with an aristocratic Vietnamese woman.

Readers familiar with these books will see resonances in “The Deep Green Sea,” but there also are echoes from his other work, particularly his 1994 novel, “They Whisper,” which concerned itself with the sexual history of its male protagonist. Told through a variety of viewpoints, including the imagined voices of the narrator’s various female partners, “They Whisper” represented a dramatic departure from Butler’s earlier work, and caused a good deal of controversy when it was released.

By contrast, the new novel is narrated in alternating sections by its star-crossed lovers, Benjamin Cole, a 47-year-old American veteran who goes back to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, out of an aching “desire for things to be whole,” and Tien, a 26-year-old Vietnamese woman he meets on a street when he gets there.

A good deal of what the two have to tell describes a lot more than some readers might want to know about their intimate encounters with each other, and there is an unsettling, some might even say improbably melodramatic, plot development that has Ben wondering if he knew Tien’s mother decades earlier during the war.

“Yes, I would consider this new novel to be a companion volume to ‘Good Scent,’ and also ‘They Whisper,’ primarily because the book is about intimacy and the yearning for connection that is expressed through men and women coming together,” Butler agreed in a recent interview.

Yet just as important as Vietnam is in his work, Butler is quick to point out how that element comprises just one aspect of his writing. “People think too narrowly of me and my responses to Vietnam, I’m afraid. I am a Vietnam novelist the way Monet is just a lily pad painter. My interest always has been and always will be the human condition. Vietnam is not a monolith for me.”

His six other books demonstrate that assertion tellingly, most notably “Wabash,” which creates a fictional Midwestern city not unlike Granite City, Ill., where Butler was born and brought up, and “Tabloid Dreams,” a raucous story collection that is the basis of a television special.

Butler received a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and a master of arts degree in play writing from the University of Iowa in 1969. Inducted shortly thereafter into the Army, he was taught Vietnamese at a language school, assigned to military intelligence for five months in 1971, then worked in Saigon as a translator.

“I lived in an old French hotel in downtown Saigon and I loved to go out and wander every night. It was not a cynical detached thing; I adored the people and their culture, and I’ve gone back twice since the war, most recently three years ago. I continue to be intrigued by some of the wonderfully exotic and dramatic circumstances I find there that I can turn into books.”

Unlike most other fiction writers who achieve popularity as novelists, and then turn to writing stories, Butler’s fame came through the tremendous response accorded to “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain.”

Prior to publication of those stories, none of his books had sold more than 5,000 copies each; since then his fortunes have changed dramatically, with renewed interested demonstrated in his earlier books, which are in print in paperback editions.

“All fiction comes out of yearning, and a lot of modern fiction fails because that is not in place,” Butler said. “My work involves the yearning for self and identity, and to connect with others. These elements, as it happens, are compatible with the personalities and the culture and the situations that I found in Vietnam.”


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