"An unrepeatable feat, a tour de force." The Washington Post Book World
In Tabloid Dreams , Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler dazzles with his mastery of the short story and his empathy for eccentric and ostracized characters. Using tabloid headlines as inspiration"Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis," "Woman Struck by Car Turns into Nymphomaniac," and "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction"Butler moves from the fantastic to the realistic, exploring enduring concepts of exile, loss, aspiration, and the search for self. Along the way, the cast includes a woman who can see through her glass eye when it's removed from the socket, a widow who sets herself on fire after losing a baking competition, a nine-year-old hit man, and a woman who dates an extraterrestrial she met in a Walmart parking lot. Tabloid Dreams weaves a seamless tapestry of high and low culture, of the surreal, sordid, and humorously sad.
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About the Author
Robert Olen Butler has published thirteen novels, six story collections, and a book on the creative process, From Where You Dream. In addition to a Pulitzer Prize and two National Magazine Awards, he has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction and an NEA grant, as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
Read an Excerpt
"Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed"
This is a bit of a puzzle, really. A certain thrashing about overhead. Swimmers with nowhere to go, I fear, though I don't recognize this body of water. I've grown quite used to this existence I now have. I'm fully conscious that I'm dead. And yet not so, somehow. I drift and drift, and I am that in which I drift, though what that is now, precisely, is unclear to me. There was darkness at first, and I failed to understand. But then I rose as some faint current from the depths of the North Atlantic and there were others around me, the corporeal creatures of the sea whom I had hitherto known strictly on fine china and dressed lightly in butter and lemon. I found that I was the very medium for the movement of their piscine limbs, and they seemed oblivious to my consciousness. Given their ignorance, I could not even haunt them. But I understood, by then, of what my fundamental state consisted, something that had eluded the wisdom of Canterbury. Something for which I was unprepared.
And after many years — I don't know how many, but it is clear to me that it is not an inconsiderable sum — there are still surprises awaiting me. This impulse now to shape words, for instance. And the thrashing above me, the agitation it brings upon me. I returned to the first-class smoking lounge soon after I realized what had happened to the ship. I sat in an overstuffed leather chair and then looked about for a dry match to light my cigar. But I was well aware of what was going on out in the darkness beyond the window.
Perhaps that accounts for the slight betrayal of fear, something only I could notice, since on the surface I seemed to be in control: I sat down and reached for a match. But I sat down already fearing that the matches would be wet. I should have searched for the match and then sat down. But I sat. And then I looked about. And, of course, the room was quite dry. On the table, just at arm's length, was a silver-plated ashtray with a silver matchbox engraved with the flag of the White Star Line rising on a pedestal from its center. The box was full of matches. I took one and struck it and it flared into life and I held it to my cigar and I thought, What a shame that this quite charming ashtray will be soon lost. My hand was steady. To anyone watching, it would seem I had never doubted that the matches in this room were dry. Of course they were. At that hour the ship was beginning to settle into the water, but only like a stout fellow standing in this very room after a long night of cards and feeling heavy in his lower limbs. It was, of course, impossible for water to be in this room as yet. That would come only very near the end. But still I feared that the matches would already be spoilt.
All through that night, the fear was never physical. I didn't mind so much, in point of fact, giving up a life in my body. The body was never a terribly interesting thing to me. Except perhaps to draw in the heavy curl of the smoke of my cigar, like a Hindu's rope in the market rising as if it were a thing alive. One needs a body to smoke a good cigar. I took the first draw there in that room just below the fourth funnel of the largest ship in the world as it sat dead still, filling with the North Atlantic ocean in the middle of the night, and the smoke was a splendid thing.
And as I did, I felt an issue of perspiration on my forehead. This was not unpleasant, however. I sat with many a fine cigar on the verandah of my bungalow in Madras, and though one of the boys was always there to fan the punkah, I would perspire on my forehead and it was just part of smoking a good cigar out in India. With a whisky and soda beside me. I thought, sitting on the sinking ship, about pouring myself a drink. But I didn't. I wanted a clear head. I had gone to my cabin when things seemed serious and I'd changed into evening dress. It was a public event, it seemed to me. It was a solemn occasion. With, I assumed, a King to meet somewhat higher even than our good King George. I didn't feel comfortable in tweeds.
What is that thrashing about above me now? The creatures of the sea are absent here, though I'm not risen into the air as I have done for some years, over and over, lifted and dispersed into cloud. I'm coalesced in a place that has no living creatures but is large enough for me to be unable quite to sense its boundaries. Perhaps not too large, since I am not moving except for a faint eddying from the activity above. But at least I am in a place larger than a teacup. I once dwelt in a cup of tea, and on that occasion, I sensed the constraints of the space.
I yearn to be clothed now in the evening dress I wore on that Sunday night in April in the year of 1912. I must say that a body is useful for formal occasions, as well. All this floating about seems much too casual to me. I expected something more rigorous in the afterlife. A propitiatory formality. A sensible accounting. Order. But there has been no sign, as yet, of that King of Kings. Just this long and elemental passage to a place I cannot recognize. And an odd sense of alertness now. And these words I feel compelled to speak.
There. I think I heard the sound of a human voice above me in this strange place. Very briefly. I cannot make out the words, if words this voice indeed uttered. It's been a rare thing for me, in all this time, to sense that a living human being might be close by. On that dark night in the North Atlantic, at the very moment we struck our fate out somewhere beneath the water line on our bow, I was in the midst of voices that did not resolve themselves into clear words, and none of us heard anything of that fateful event. I was sitting and smoking, and there was a voluble conversation over a card game near to me. It was late. Nearly midnight. I was reluctant to leave the company of these men, though I had not said more than two dozen words to any of them on this night, beyond "good evening." I am an indifferent card player. I sat and smoked all evening and I missed having the latest newspaper. I don't remember what I might have thought about, with all that smoke. India perhaps. Perhaps my sister and her husband in Toronto, towards whom we had just ceased to steam.
What did become clear to me quite quickly was that we had stopped. I looked at the others and they were continuing to play their game unaware of anything unusual. So I rose and stepped out under the wrought-iron and glass dome of the aft staircase. I had no apprehensions. The staircase was very elegant with polished oak wall paneling and gilt on the balustrades and it was lit bright with electric lights. My feeling was that in the absence of the threat of native rebellion, things such as this could not possibly be in peril.
That seems a bit naive now, of course, but at the time, I was straight from the leather chair of the first-class smoking lounge. And I was tutored in my views by the Civil Service in India. And I was a keen reader of the newspapers and all that they had to say about this new age of technology, an age for which this unsinkable ship stood as eloquent testament. And I was an old bachelor whose only sister lived in the safest dominion of the empire.
Owing to the lateness of the hour, there was no one about on the staircase except for a steward who rushed past me and down the steps. "What's the trouble?" I asked him.
He waved a hot water bottle he was carrying and said, "Cold feet, I presume," and he disappeared on the lower landing.
I almost stepped back into the smoking lounge. But there was no doubt that we had come to a full stop, and that was unquestionably out of the ordinary. Two or three of the card players were now standing in the doorway just behind me, murmuring about this very thing.
"I'll see what's the matter," I said without looking at them, and I descended the steps and went out onto the open promenade.
The night was very still. There were people moving about, somewhat distractedly, but I paid them no attention. I stepped to the railing and the sea was vast and smooth in the moonlight. There were shapes out there, like water buffalo sleeping in the fields in the dark nights outside Madras. I would drive back to my bungalow in a trap, my head still cluttered with the talk and the music from the little dance band and the whirling around of the dancers, and I would think how the social rites of my own class sometimes felt as foreign to me as those of the people we were governing here. These pretenses the men and women made in order to touch, often someone else's spouse. I am not unobservant. But I would go to these events, nevertheless. Even if I kept to myself.
I looked out at these sleeping shapes in the water. A woman's voice was suddenly nearby.
"We're doomed now," she said in the flat inflection of an American.
It took a moment to realize that she was addressing me. She said no more. But I think I heard her breathing. I turned and she was less than an arm's length from me along the railing. In the brightness of the moon I could see her face quite clearly. She seemed rather young, though less than two hours later I would revise that somewhat. The first impression, however, was that she was young, and that was all. Perhaps rather pretty, too, but I don't think I noticed that at the time. There were certain things that I suppose were beyond my powers of observation. When I realized to whom she was speaking, her words finally registered on me.
"Not at all." I spoke from whatever ignorance I had learned all my life. "Nothing that can't be handled. This is a fine ship."
"I'm not in a panic," she said. "You can hear that in my voice, can't you?"
"I just know this terrible thing to be true."
I leaned on the rail and looked at these sleeping cattle. I knew what they were. I understood what this woman had concluded. "It's the ice you fear," I said.
"The deed is done, don't you think?" she said.
Her breath puffed out, white in the moonlight, and I felt suddenly responsible for her. There was nothing personal in it. But this was a lady in some peril, I realized. At least in peril from her own fears. I felt a familiar stiffening in me, and I was glad of it. Dissipated now were the effects of the cigar smoke and the comfort of a chair in a place where men gathered in their complacent ease. But I still felt I only needed to dispel some groundless fears of a woman too much given to her intuition.
"What deed might that be?" I asked her, trying to gentle my voice.
"We've struck an iceberg."
I was surprised to find that this seemed entirely plausible. "And suppose we have," I said. "This ship is the very most modern afloat. The watertight compartments make it quite unsinkable. We would, perhaps, at worst, be delayed."
She turned her face to me, though she did not respond.
"Are you traveling alone?" I asked.
"Perhaps that accounts for your anxiety."
"No. It was the deep and distant sound of the collision. And the vibration I felt in my feet. And the speed with which we were hurtling among these things." She nodded to the shapes in the dark. I looked and felt a chill from the night air. "And the dead stop we instantly made," she said. "And it's a thing in the air. I can smell it. A thing that I smelled once before, when I was a little girl. A coal mine collapsed in my hometown. Many men were trapped and would die within a few hours. I smell that again ... These are the things that account for my anxiety."
"You shouldn't be traveling alone," I said. "If I might say so."
"No, you might not say so," she said, and she turned her face sharply to the sea.
"I'm sorry," I said. Though I felt I was right. A woman alone could be subject to torments of the sensibility such as this and have no one to comfort her. I wanted to comfort this woman beside me.
Is this an eddy through what once was my mind? A stirring of the water in which I'm held? I ripple and suddenly I see this clearly: my wish to comfort her came from an impulse stronger than duty would strictly require. I see this now, dissolved as I have been for countless years in the thing that frightened her that night. But standing with her at the rail, I simply wished for a companion to comfort her on a troubling night, a father or a brother perhaps.
"You no doubt mean well," she said.
"Yes. Of course."
"I believe a woman should vote too," she said.
"Quite," I said. This was a notion I'd heard before and normally it seemed, in the voice of a woman, a hard and angry thing. But now this woman's voice was very small. She was arguing her right to travel alone and vote when, in fact, she feared she would soon die in the North Atlantic Ocean. I understood this much and her words did not seem provocative to me. Only sad.
"I'm certain you'll have a chance to express that view for many decades to come," I said.
"The change is nearer than you think," she said with some vigor now in her voice, even irritation. I was glad to hear it.
"I didn't mean to take up the political point," I said. "I simply meant you will survive this night and live a long time."
She lowered her face.
"That's your immediate concern, isn't it?" I asked, trying to speak very gently.
Before she could answer, a man I knew from the smoking lounge approached along the promenade, coming from the direction of the bow of the ship. He had gone out of the lounge some time earlier.
"Look here," he said, and he showed me his drink. It was full of chipped ice. "It's from the forward well deck," he said. "It's all over the place."
I felt the woman ease around my shoulder and look into the glass. The man was clearly drunk and shouldn't have been running about causing alarm.
"From the iceberg," he said.
I heard her exhale sharply.
"I never take ice in my scotch and soda," I said.
The man drew himself up. "I do," he said. And he moved away unsteadily, confirming my criticism of him.
She stood very still for a long moment.
All I could think to say was something along the lines of "Here, here. There's nothing to worry about." But she was not the type of woman to take comfort from that. I knew that much about her already. I felt no resentment at the fact. Indeed, I felt sorry for her. If she wanted to be the sort to travel alone and vote and not be consoled by the platitudes of a stiff old bachelor from the Civil Service in India, then it was sad for her to have these intense and daunting intuitions of disaster and death, as well.
So I kept quiet, and she eventually turned her face to me. The moon fell upon her. At the time, I did not clearly see her beauty. I can see it now, however. I have always been able to see in this incorporeal state. Quite vividly. Though not at the moment. There's only darkness. The activity above me has no shape. But in the sea, as I drifted inexorably to the surface, I began to see the fish and eventually the ceiling of light above me. And then there was the first time I rose — quite remarkable — lifting from the vastness of an ocean delicately wrinkled and athrash with the sunlight. I went up into a sky I knew I was a part of, spinning myself into the gossamer of a rain cloud, hiding from the sea, traced as a tiny wisp into a great gray mountain of vapor. And I wondered if there were others like me there. I listened for them. I tried to call to them, though I had no voice. Not even words. Not like these that now shape in me. If I'd had these words then, perhaps I could have called out to the others who had gone down with the Titanic, and they would have heard me. If, in fact, they were there. But as far as I knew — as far as I know now — I am a solitary traveler.
And then I was rain, and the cycle began. And I moved in the clouds and in the tides and eventually I became rivers and streams and lakes and dew and a cup of tea. Darjeeling. In a place not unlike the one where I spent so many years. I had recently come out of the sea, but I don't think the place was Madras or near it, for the sea must have been the Arabian, not the Bay of Bengal. I was in a reservoir and then in a well and then in a boiling kettle and eventually in a porcelain cup, very thin: I could see the shadow of a woman's hand pick me up. I sensed it was Darjeeling tea, but I don't know how. Perhaps I can smell, too, in this state, but without the usual body, perhaps there is only the knowledge of the scent. I'm not sure. But I slipped inside a woman and then later I was — how shall I say this? — free again. I must emphasize that I kept my spirit's eyes tightly shut.
That was many years ago. I subsequently crossed the subcontinent and then Indochina and then I spent a very long time in another vast sea, the Pacific Ocean, I'm sure. And then, in recent times, I rolled in a storm front across a rough coast and rained hard in a new land. I think, in fact, I have arrived in the very country for which I'd set sail in that fateful spring of 1912.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Tabloid Dreams"
Copyright © 1996 Robert Olen Butler.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
"Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed",
"Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband",
"Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis",
"Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire",
"Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot",
"Woman Struck by Car Turns into Nymphomaniac",
"Nine-Year-Old Boy Is World's Youngest Hit Man",
"Every Man She Kisses Dies",
"Doomsday Meteor Is Coming",
"Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover",
"JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction",
"Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle",