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A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) is Robert Olen Butler's collection of short stories which received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1993. There are seventeen in total, each narrated by a different Vietnamese immigrant living in Louisiana after the Vietnam War. All are about fourteen pages long except for the roughly eighty-page "The American Couple" which I thought was the best of the bunch. It digs deeper into the characters and depicts a woman's perspective of veterans, one of whom is her Vietnamese husband and the other an American. These men meet while they and their wives are on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and their intense relationship, firmly tied to their past wartime roles, triggers an extraordinary and extreme role-play in which they playact a sort of bitter capture the flag game. And this happens where the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana was shot—a place we're told looks similar to beach and mountain areas in Vietnam.

As for the other stories, some I liked and others I've forgotten. Cultural differences, a major theme in most if not all of them, for me made the book a good read. What felt awkward, though, was they're not actual accounts from Vietnamese people but instead the creations of a white American fiction writer. With so much diversity among the authors being published today, I doubt Butler would win a Pulitzer for the collection if it were to come out this year. But he did serve in Vietnam and was a translator there, and his writing and the detail convinced me that he genuinely understands and has a great appreciation for the Vietnamese people. And I respect him for the backbone and empathy he'd need to express what he believed were in a way true perspectives of men and women of a culture so unlike his own.


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