No serious writer in America works with a lighter touch than Robert Olen Butler. That sure hand, guided by a potent creative intelligence, saves books like Tabloid Dreams (1996), inspired by supermarket weekly headlines, from mere whimsy.
Butler seemed to approach the limits of these gifts with his last collection, Severance (2006), 62 monologues capturing the dying thoughts of decapitated people — John the Baptist, Ann Boleyn, Jane Mansfield among them — via intense bursts of unpunctuated imagery. Yet in his latest, Butler pushes the conceit even further.
Intercourse conveys the thoughts of people (and in one instance, chickens) in the act of copulation. On one page comes the monologue of one participant, on the facing page his or her partner’s. That the two are pressed together when you close the book is a nice little bonus.
Butler removes the safety net altogether by not confining himself to historical and mythical couplings — he starts with Adam and Eve, ends with Santa Claus and an 826-year-old elf named Ingebiritta. He boldly includes real people, some still living: Prince Charles and Princess Diana, George and Laura Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton. This opens the author to charges of exploitation and invasion of privacy, and indeed, some in Britain have bitterly complained on Diana’s behalf.
Gender variance, no surprise, is the order of the day. Adam dwells on the “Creator’s vast dark face”, and his pride at naming the animals, but warms to his newly fallen state (“naked is good, too”), while Eve sets the template for generations of tolerant and exasperated women (“I offer and he takes,” and “he is flailing around and proud of his own little snake”).
But it soon grows clear that Butler is after more than the small game of clashing sexual expectations. Passion is little addressed in these pages, and the characters seldom pay much attention to matters at hand. These monologues are less a replication of actual carnal states of mind than a distillation of character, probed in a sexual context.
Unforced cleverness enlivens the proceedings. A tryst between Paris (“for now, in spite of her distraction, she is mine”) and Helen (“he is beautiful in face and neck and hands and chest and thighs, but not as beautiful as me”) is followed, at the conclusion of the Trojan War, with Helen returned to her husband, the Spartan king Menelaus (“this is familiar, after a decade, this is too familiar, I should have just let her go”).
William Shakespeare rhapsodizes in congress with his patron, the Earl of Southampton. Cotton Mather regrets his part in the Salem witch trials, while his mad wife Lydia plans to season his food with magical concoctions. John Wilkes Booth stokes his hatred for Lincoln, and his lover, the actress Catherine Winslow, mistakes the flash in his eyes for love.
Adolf Hitler seduces a young journalist named Inga Arvad, who later beds a young American officer, John F. Kennedy — here, as in life, unabashedly quick on the draw. Clyde Barrow ponders his devotion to Bonnie Parker; Richard Nixon forces Pat to enact a fantasy involving his mother; Laura Bush concentrates on redecorating the White House, while reflecting on George’s “project of peeing in all 35” of its bathrooms. These interludes, like the ones featuring Charles and Diana, Bill and Hillary, shock not by exploitation, but for how concisely they capture and enlarge what we already know about such iconic figures.
The tenderest moments come between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (“my Lovey is the plumpest manmuscled genius of any of them”), and a divorced couple serendipitously reunited (“I want to kiss his hand and I imagine these past few years unwinding”).
When I read Severance I wondered what made its pieces stories instead of the prose poems they so much resemble. Butler himself has since offered an answer: “To be brief,” he writes in Narrative Magazine.com, “it is a story and not a prose poem because it has at its center a character who yearns.” Intercourse is not the book for erotic titillation, but for human yearning, it is unsurpassed.