Worrisome, the cover design of Tabloid Dreams, which shows a big glass eyeball gleaming against a lurid purplish backdrop. Too high concept, you think, too gimmicky. The allusion is to "Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philadelphia Husband," one of 12 tabloid headlines Butler uses as inspiration for his new, uneven, story collection. "I go over to where [the eye] is lying on the rug and I look down," the spying woman narrates. "And I look up. At the same time." We understand the eye is a metaphor for clarity; if you could truly see your husband cheating, you'd leave, not equivocate. Especially after his lover sticks said eye in her navel "like a belly dancer's jewel." Talk about the last straw.
Unfortunately, too many of these tales read like fiction workshop exercises ù clever, but more attention-getting than anything else. "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire," and "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover," in particular, deploy a countrified, banal, near-patronizing tone. Like this cartoonish detail from "Every Man She Kisses Dies": "I go into the drawer in the nightstand and I pull out a foil pack and I tear it open and it's wax lips, big red wax lips, and I put them on ... "
When Butler leaves the archness behind, he can write movingly, as his Pulitzer-prize winning story collection, "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain," attests. This is the case with the first and last tales in this book, which exhibit a fine and wistful tone. They're told from the perspective of two passengers on the Titanic and succeed, perhaps, because Butler writes in a 1912-ish style (the year of the disaster), thus avoiding the prose pitfalls of his more aggressively "contemporary" fiction.
To wit: "All this floating about seems much too casual to me," states the starched British civil servant and sinking victim, whose essence dissolved in the floe-chocked North Atlantic, churned through various rivers, only to end up in a waterbed. "I expected something more rigorous in the afterlife," he continues. "A propitiary formality. A sensible accounting. Order. But there has been no sign, as yet, of that King of Kings." The young suffragette he saves in the first story reflects on this salvation in story two. "I told him I did not know why I should live and he said 'Because I ask you to.'"
Lovely words. Dreamy words. Not tabloid-like at all ù which is why these few stories work, and the others, sadly, just don't. -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Endlessly playful, inventive and daring, Butler (They Whisper) challenges himself with each new book. He does so again in this intriguing collection of 12 short stories in which he combines the bizarre and the matter-of-fact with remarkable legerdemain. What at first seems a blatant device proves instead to be an interesting catalyst: the titles mimic lurid tabloid headlines, but Butler develops such howlers as "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover'' and "Woman Hit by Car Turns into Nymphomaniac'' into eerie or outlandish situations that become funny and affecting stories capable of touching universal chords. Each tale has a first-person narrator, ranging from a nine-year-old boy who kills mobsters with insouciance to a jealous husband who is reincarnated as a parrot bought by his former wife. In one irreverent but poignant story, JFK, in hiding since the (unsuccessful) assassination attempt, attends the Jackie auction, where he muses on his late wife's naked body. Although in each entry the epiphanic moment arises from a surreal situation, the format does not result in any sameness of tone, voice, plot structure or setting; the latter include an Alabama trailer park and a Manhattan book editor's plush office. A few stories ("Doomsday Meteor Is Coming''; "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire'') try too hard, but the collection has a strong emotional impact, especially when one reaches the last story, which echoes the first, both of which are inspired by the sinking of the Titanic. (Oct.)
Hearing a voice from beyond the grave is usually a chilling, blood-curdling experience. However, being such a voice, issuing unheard from an improbable source (a parrot, a waterbed), offers the lost soul plenty of time to reflect on the missed opportunities of a life not fully lived. And though a lurid sensibility permeates the titles and tableaux of the "tabloid" tales in Pulitzer Prize-wining author Butler's latest collection, this vision of postmortem regret is at the heart of Butler's sad, mirthful stories. In "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," a woman buys the avian reincarnation of her ex-husband in a Houston pet store and takes him home, where he ruminates on his past and present failure to express his unconditional love for his wife: "I was not enough. 'Bad bird,' I say. I'm sorry." Widowed housewife Gertie in "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire" chooses self-immolation when she is forced to realize that her whole life has been sucked away, down the ungrateful gullets of men. As rumored, John Kennedy is not dead, but has merely lost his capacity for self-censorship and is kept in seclusion by the CIA to restrain him from compulsively revealing state secrets. In "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction," the 79-year-old former president travels incognito to Sotheby's to retrieve a relic of his former grandeur but is woefully short of cash. Butler's wicked humor is tempered by genuine compassion for the characters' indelible misfortunes. Readers everywhere will enjoy these inventive, compelling fantasies. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/96.]Adam Mazmanian, "Library Journal"
From the Publisher
Praise for Tabloid Dreams:
"It is Mr. Butler’s genius in this volume to lure an audience into the tent by shouting versions of the tabloids’ headlines . . . and then providing more than the customer has been led to expect. Turning the lurid third-person titles of his stories into direct testimony from the principles, Mr. Butler often transforms the material’s coarsenessand a reader’s anticipated guffawsinto lyricism and wonder." The New York Times Book Review
"These stories are a real achievement and a true surprise . . . Butler peels back the sleazy veneer of the sensational to expose characters who long for love and the healing comfort of human compassion." USA Today
"To see, to know, to touch, to rememberthese desires have always been at the heart of great fiction. They are here in abundance, along with the skewed and comic tenderness that is Butler’s greatest gift as a writer. You start to read these stories and laugh; then, sucker-punched, you see the sadness and sweetness in each one." The Times-Picayune
"Out of pop culture, Robert Olen Butler extracts a result that looks uncomplicated, but subtly reveals many of the preoccupations of American literatureespecially loneliness, conformity and innocence." The Boston Globe
"These stories are masterpieces of accessible complexityjewels of poignancy molded from what is generally considered a slag heap of modern culture. Tabloid Dreams is a magnificent work of imagination, entertainment and humanity." Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
"Daring and uncommonly beautiful literary flights of fancy. There are touches of Italo Calvino, Roald Dahl, and Gabriel García Márquez in them. At the same time, Tabloid Dreams couldn’t be more American in premise, flavor and humor . . . [it] makes its dozen fanciful tales not just real to its readers, but also sublimely reasonable." San Francisco Chronicle
"A hugely entertaining, sometimes dazzling collection from one of our most versatile writers." Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"There’s a beautiful liquidity both to Butler’s prose and to his imagination. Sex and death hold hands and dance in Tabloid Dreams . . . And yet these aren’t sad stories. They’re too funny for that. And in almost every one, there’s a moment of transcendence; for every character, redemption glimmers." Wisconsin State Journal
"Butler has taken a ham’s material and fashioned it into a dozen artful and wondrous tales, once again proving himself to be the rarest kind of writer, one who can’t be pigeonholed, who doesn’t rely on a set, safe shtick but keeps challenging himself with new and varied material." Chicago Tribune
"Straightforward, surreal, hilarious, shocking and ultimately very moving . . . It’s hard to imagine another writer who could achieve such pathos, humor and intensity from such an absurd situation . . . Playwrights come first to mind: Ionesco and Beckett." St. Petersburg Times
"Every story in this collection deserves a prize. Originality, humor, distinctive voices, drop-dead proseButler possesses all these qualities, and he lends them to every story." The Hudson Review
"Butler has a remarkable facility for finding the heart in otherwise trashy lives . . . In trash, suggests Butler, there can always be transcendence." The Village Voice
"Tabloid Dreams is full-blown American magical realism: funny, lyrical, striking, its stories seek and find meaning in our very own myths, the ones we characteristically reinvent every few years to fit our fears and fantasies . . . Butler and his characters convince us that concepts such as conscience, justice, and love are meaningful and necessary, even in a culture whose stock-in-trade is bunk." Boston Book Review