Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Had a Good Time

Stories from American Postcards

by Robert Olen Butler

“All of these stories are told in the first person, but Butler rarely settles for impressing us with his range of vocal effects. He favors strong plots and strong twists. . . . The author more than satisfies us with the book’s tonal variety and unexpected linkages.” —Thomas Mallon, Washington Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date August 20, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4204-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date May 01, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-1-5558-4620-6
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

From the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a captivating and enchanting book of stories inspired by old postcards.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Robert Olen Butler examined America through the unusual perspective of the eyes of Vietnamese postwar immigrants. Now, in his widely acclaimed Had a Good Time, Butler rediscovers America using a fascinating kaleidoscope of postcards from a bygone era.

For many years Butler has collected picture postcards from the early twentieth century—not so much for the pictures on the front but for the messages written on the backs, little bits of the captured souls of people long since passed away. Only Robert Olen Butler, who has been called a “master of enveloping his reader in the consciousness of a character” (Boston Book Review), could use these brief messages of real people from another age to create fully imagined stories that speak to the universal human condition. In “Up by Heart,” a Tennessee miner is called upon to become a preacher, and then asked to complete an altogether more sinister task. In “The Ironworkers’ Hayride,” a young man named Milton embarks on a romantic adventure with a girl with a wooden leg. From the deeply moving “Carl and I,” where a young wife writes a postcard in reply to a card from her husband who is dying of tuberculosis, to the eerily familiar “The One in White,” where a newspaper reporter covers an incident of American military adventurism in a foreign land, these are intimate and fascinating glimpses into the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary age.

Charged with sincerity, wit, and an eye into the stuff of human relationships, Had a Good Time proves once again that Robert Olen Butler is “our preeminent practitioner of first-person narrative” (Chicago Tribune).

Praise

“Fifteen gloriously imaginative and utterly hypnotizing short stories . . . Scintillating, soulful, and surprising.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist

“I’ll never stop believing it: Robert Olen Butler is the best living American writer, period. . . . Only Butler could have crafted Had a Good Time. . . . [The] characters and situations absolutely sing in your mind as you read. And the most amazing thing—no two narrators sound alike. It’s like reading short stories by a dozen different, immensely gifted authors.” —Jeff Guinn, Fort Worth Morning Star

“[Butler] chose fifteen postcards, breathed lives into the correspondents, and the result is a wonderful collection of stories that depicts American life after the turn of the twentieth century from a wide variety of perspectives.” —Jessica Murphy, Atlantic Monthly

“All of these stories are told in the first person, but Butler rarely settles for impressing us with his range of vocal effects. He favors strong plots and strong twists. . . . The author more than satisfies us with the book’s tonal variety and unexpected linkages.” —Thomas Mallon, Washington Post

“Butler inhabits these people with eerie emotional accuracy. He changes the narration to suit each character’s voice, and brings wide swaths of early 20th-century America to life with a few deft strokes. . . . There is a great deal to admire in this collection—crisp writing, marvelous imaging, the discussion of large, existential questions that are as central to life now as they were a hundred years ago.” —Roland Merullo, Boston Globe

“All of the stories are short and such good company that we read them in an afternoon. What’s more, we had the feeling that Butler enjoyed them almost as much as we did.” —Arizona Republic

“Butler extends his reach once again . . . from the spiky class-conscious sallies of an angry bellhop in ‘Hotel Touraine’ to the muted, anxious reflections of a middle-aged man sitting on the beach in ‘Sunday,’ he crafts strong individual voices whose cadences and rhythms reflect the world these characters live in.” —Wendy Smith, Newsday

“Butler has collected vintage postcards for 10 years . . . and in his terrific new collection, he uses his findings to inspire mesmerizing excursions into loss and affirmation. From their smudged, often enigmatic messages . . . evolve tales that capture the rugged promise of the brand-new 20th century.” —Connie Ogle, Tampa Tribune

“Butler’s newest collection of stories looks to turn-of-the-century American postcards for its literary inspiration, and the strength and uniqueness of his narrative voice makes these tales as equally pleasurable and potentially award-winning as [his] first.” —Jennie A. Camp, Rocky Mountain News

“A wonderfully varied third collection from Pulitzer-winning Butler that investigates diverse lives—and deaths—early in the twentieth century . . . Assured, accomplished, and another intriguing change of pace from an adventurous writer who refuses to be pigeonholed.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Butler remains, unfortunately, a precious literary secret. . . . Had a Good Time is a legacy of supreme imagination, surely inimitable.” —Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Butler’s imaginative re-animation of anonymous lives from the past is both entertaining and informative, an alternate history of forgotten souls.” —Regis Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“Butler throws his literary voice back in time to the early part of the American century in order to embody some of the great themes of the era. A nostalgic look backward, Had a Good Time has a little something for all tastes.” —Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel

“Good Southern storyteller that he is, Butler sometimes writes with a comically absurd quality reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor . . . [Had a Good Time] makes for a juicy feast, full of memorable stories you will want to read slowly, not in bunches, but chewing them over one by one, discussing them with friends.” —Alice Evans, Oregon Live

“Picture postcards offer an unusually fertile vantage point from which to examine the traditions and complications of American life. In these terrific new stories, he uses his findings to inspire mesmerizing excursions into loss and affirmation.” —Denver Post/Rocky Mountain News

“A collection of short stories that does nothing short of illuminating our humanity. . . . A deeply moving book filled with emotionally gripping tales.” —Curled Up With a Good Book

“Butler proceeds to demonstrate his virtuosity by building moving, readable stories on these brief missives, some funny, some mere glimpses into distant lives, some truly tragic. In the aggregate, the tales make up a portrait of American life a century ago, its fears and tears, its hopes and laughter. . . . A moody, well-crafted collection.” —Clay Evans, Daily Camera (CO)

“I would read a book like this by anyone, but Butler’s an amazing storyteller, so it’s even better.” —Bill O’sullivan, Cargo

“Butler is brilliant at shifting not only the fictional voices from story to story, but also each characters’ disposition, attitudes and shapes of thought, fooling you into believing each one. The author has quite a bit of fun here, and his playfulness is infectious.” —Christian Martin, Bellingham Weekly (WA)

“Whether poignant or fiercely funny, Butler’s stories faithfully follow the lead of the long-dead, always taking great care not to dispel the mood created by the postcard’s author.” —Andrea Hoag, Star Tribune

“Superbly crafted short stories.” —Marc Leepson, VVA Veteran

“A thoughtful commentary on America at the dawn of a new century: while some Americans were buoyed by their confidence in technology and progress, others, at the mercy of a disease-ridden, hardscrabble existence, could trust only in their faith in God.” —Publishers Weekly

Praise for Robert Olen Butler:

“Robert Olen Butler may be our preeminent practitioner of first-person narrative. . . . Butler . . . [gives] eloquent voice to characters scarcely heard from otherwise. . . . The result [is] original, funny, bizarrely haunting.” —Wilton Bernhardt, Chicago Tribune

“You have to admire a writer who takes risks, and Robert Olen Butler takes big ones. . . . One of our most original writers.” —Anthony Brandt, Men’s Journal

“[Robert Olen Butler] deserves our gratitude, for his continued risk-taking and stubbornly singular sensibility.” —Todd Kilman, The Washington Post

“Once again, [Butler’s] language is right on the money in this alternately witty and moving meditation on value and values. . . . Butler plays with the usual stereotypes of romance but ultimately rejects them in favor of something much more satisfying and surprising.” —Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor on Fair Warning

“Engaging . . . fascinating . . . accompanied by the wealth of evocative detail one might expect from a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize . . . Rich and captivating.” —Les Standiford, The Miami Herald on Fair Warning

Awards

Winner, with The Atlantic Monthly, of the 2005 National Magazine Award in Fiction for “The One in White”
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of ’04

Excerpt

Hotel Touraine

This is where the people who have more money than brains put up. They pay about $100 per month for 2 rooms furnished when they could afford to have a nice home of their own. I had a job in this hotel last year. Worked there for a week. Saw lots of style, but don’t see as the people were any happier.

My fifth day at the hotel I pretty near ran down John Stanford Barnhill in the corridor past the second-floor library. I was making time with a pitcher of water to a public room along the way, where some other swell was receiving guests like the whole place was his mansion and he was doing an at-home in his own parlor. The Oriental rugs are thick underfoot all over the Touraine and I was making no sound and Barnhill bolts out of the library door and I pull up sharp, tucking the pitcher into me so I’ll take the splash instead of him.

Which I do, down my bellboy jacket with the brass buttons, and he says, “Whoa, Dobbin,” like I’m a spooked dray horse. I just keep my mouth shut. No Sorry, sir or Excuse me, sir like I know I’m supposed to do, but this guy’s about my age, not much into his twenties, and he’s in a serge suit with cigars sticking out of his pocket and he gets my goat in an instant. I’m still figuring out what to think about this job and I decide right off not to play the lackey to guys like this. This is even before I know who he is, exactly, heir to millions by being born the only grandnephew of somebody else who was born to millions and so on. I just take the splash and sashay around him and head on down to where I’m supposed to go. He could yell something after me, about my being a rude working-class bumpkin or some such, but he doesn’t. I figure it’s running through his head, though.

Then later that day I’m going out of the place in my own clothes, my uniform hanging in a wire locker in the changing room, and you’d think he’d never recognize me, but you’d think wrong. I’m going out of the hotel and he says, “You one of those bare-headed anarchists to boot?” To boot meaning bomb-throwing anarchist in addition to water-spilling bellboy, and the whole thing has been set off by my going without a hat, which has always been my way, unlike the vast herds of men in the world. But I don’t like a thing to bind me in around my head. All of which sounds grand and free on my part, but I guess that’d be wrong too, because in response to his cheek I say, “No, sir,” and I keep on going and I like to bite my tongue off.

I’ve picked up the habit of servant talk already, after just five days, and I shoot him a hard look over my shoulder and he’s already turned away, wearing a Prince Albert coat and a high-crowned bowler, which he’s just starting to tip to a woman in a veil going by. So I dash across Tremont, dodging a streetcar and a couple of galloping horses and the express wagon they’re pulling, and I cut into the Common.

This is my parlor, the Common, and I take a winding way through, slowing down, putting Barnhill out of my mind, though a bunch of guys like him are always floating through this place as well, usually squiring young women in big straw hats full of ostrich feathers. But I swing over to the open fields and the fellows there are playing baseball and one of them who thinks he’s Tris Speaker makes a headlong dive for a hit into the outfield and he almost has it but not quite. Then he’s in for it to get back to his feet and chase the ball down while the batter’s making for third base. I don’t blame him for trying, even if he’ll never play for the Red Sox.

I turn away and move on and dig into my pocket for the pack of Meccas I bought in the lobby shop before I left the hotel. I open it and stick a smoke into my mouth and light it up and I’m starting to think about Barnhill again. Also there’s some fat cigar of a guy in a bowler putting the mash on a sweet-faced girl on the path ahead of me. I go around them and I blow smoke at his right ear and I dig out my free card from the cigarette pack. They’re still giving away Champion Athletes and I’ve got a guy with aviator goggles strapped on his head and a biplane up in the sky over his shoulder and the clouds are streaked with sunset and he’s ready to go, this guy Arch Hoxsey. I stick him in my shirt pocket with the cigarettes and hustle up, moving smartly away from my fifth day of work at the Hotel Touraine.

Twenty minutes later, after skirting the edge of Beacon Hill where Barnhill’s money was waiting in a marble-columned mansion for somebody to die, I climbed the steps of our tenement in the West End and there was a great caterwauling of kids and a stink from the third-floor toilet and Mr. Spinetti’s voice was filling the stairwell from the top floor down, him being the Caruso of tenement-hollerers. I hesitated at our door and stubbed out a second cigarette I’d let myself have right away, just to get certain people out of my mind, and then I stepped in.

Mama was near the window, hunched over the side table, rolling cigars. Her back was to me. “Eli,” she said, but she didn’t turn around.

“Mama,” I said. The smell of tobacco had thickened the air in the room. I stood for a moment getting up the strength to push through it. Maybe it was mostly not wanting to see her hands at work on these things that made me hesitate, but it felt more like I was struggling against the air being heavy with this smell. Then I did finally cross the room and I was behind Mama. Beside her on the floor on one side was a gunnysack of filler leaf and on the other a wooden box with the wrapper leaves, and her hands were moving, moving. I laid my own hand on her shoulder and I wanted to lift my eyes out the window, like the tenement across the way was some great landscape or something, but I couldn’t help watching her hands rolling around and around this fancy man’s cigar, the thing shaping up there, the loose leaves tightening as she rolled it and it would end up in John Stanford Barnhill’s mouth, or somebody just like him, and Mama would get her eight mills pay. Now I looked out the window. Her sill pillow was there for later when she’d lean out into the night and talk to the women in the windows across the way.

“Just a moment,” she said. “Let me finish this one.”

I went and sat at the small round oak table where we ate and read and talked, the one piece we’d been able to keep from our plans for a house. Papa died under the hooves and wheels of a wagon hauling bricks, down at the wharf, right when we were going to be okay, when we were boarding in a nice house and Papa had plans to buy a bungalow from Sears and Roebuck and put it up out the streetcar line in some direction or other. I won’t count the years it’s been since. The night before, he gave me Rube Waddell of the St. Louis Browns from a pack of Sweet Caporals he’d smoked that day. Rube in portrait, no cap, his hair parted neatly down the middle. “This man made himself out of nothing,” Papa said.

Mama sat down beside me now. I held her hand on the tabletop. She smelled of tobacco. Her eyes looked gray in the dim light. “How’s it at your job?” she said.

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re doing right?”

“Sure.”

“They’ll take to you.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

She took her hand from under mine and patted at me there, to reassure me. “I did a hundred twenty today,” she said.

I looked away from her, landing on the wall where she had a chromo hung of the woman at the well and Jesus asking her for water.

“Nearly a dollar,” she said.

That night I lay on my pallet propped up against the wall with a candle burning beside me. I was trying to read a Zane Grey but the cowboys with their horses and ten-gallon hats were steaming me up tonight for some reason. They think all you have to do is plug it or throw a rope around it or ride it to the ground and that solves everything. I could hear Mama breathing heavy in her sleep across the room. Somewhere on another floor some guy was yelling and somewhere else a baby was crying, but these sounds were dim, coming through all the walls in between. I reached into the pocket of my shirt hanging on a chair near me to get my cigarettes and I found Arch Hoxsey. He had a fur collar around his neck. It was cold high up in the air, I guess, no matter what the season. I turned the card over, and it said he started out working in a factory before he became a champion athlete automobile driver and then aeroplane flyer. He set a record and he rose to 11,000 feet. And then he died. He crashed trying to come back to earth on the last day of 1910. I turned his card over and looked him in the eyes. My papa would respect him. For myself, I couldn’t figure if he was a fool to leave the ground.

The next morning I was sent to John Stanford Barnhill’s rooms on the eighth floor. On the silver tray balanced on my palm was a bottle of whiskey. This was about ten in the morning, though I shouldn’t sneer because even Papa started early some days. So I knock on his door, which is slightly open, and he calls for me to come in. I push the door and step into the place, a regular cut-velvet and leather sitting room. It smells strong of cigar smoke. He’s left one lit on a saucer on the reading table. The gentleman himself is hanging out the open lower sash like the women in the tenements.

“Your whiskey,” I say, and he draws his body in from the window.

“On the table,” he says, and I put the tray down next to his cigar. I stare hard at the thing and I guess he sees me doing that.

“There hasn’t been a good Cuban crop since 1908,” he says, as if he knows I’d know something about cigars.

I look at him.

“They’re charging seventy cents for the good ones downstairs,” he says.

Now I understand. Let the anarchist bellboy know how much money you’ve got, that you can spend better than a worker’s daily wage on a couple of cigars.

“My mother does that,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Hangs out the window. She talks to her friends and watches the street.” I regret this at once. Trying to show him he’s not so different from us, I’ve just made Mama look bad.

Barnhill flips his head to the side a little to acknowledge the window and he doesn’t even crack a smile, much less a sneer. Instead, he says, “There’s elms out there on the Common that John Hancock planted.”

“You related to him, are you?”

Now I get a little sneery smile. “John Hancock is . . .”

“I know who he is.”

Barnhill laughs. “Of course. No. I’m not related to him.”

“So you like looking at trees.”

“You want a drink?” he asks, and I think he’s dead serious.

“There’s easier ways to get me fired,” I say.

Barnhill laughs again. He moves to the reading table and I back off a step. He touches the bottle but goes to thinking about something instead. His hand just stays there holding the neck of the bottle, and he’s looking at it, thinking. I back up another step. It’s time to get out of the room. I turn, and he says, “Not so fast.”

I stop and face him again and he’s digging in his vest pocket. He holds out his hand with a dime lifted by the thumb and forefinger. “Your tip,” he says.

It’s two steps away. It’s twelve and a half cigars’ worth of work. He’s not moving. Neither am I. He gives the dime a little up-flip with his hand, like to say, Come and get it.

I lift my chin just a bit and I say, “Put it toward your next Cuban downstairs,” and I’m out of that room in a flash.

Not that John Stanford Barnhill struck me as somebody real different from a dozen other guys I’d seen around the Touraine already, living in a hotel when they could so easily have what Papa had wanted all his life. A few of them even had wives with them, so they weren’t all just helpless bachelors gagging on a silver spoon. They lived in a hotel so guys like me could hop for them and they could have a chambermaid come in and take away their soiled linens and they could just stroll downstairs and eat a fancy dinner with a little orchestra playing, but of course they could have that in homes of their own if they wanted, except for maybe the orchestra, so I just couldn’t get myself to understand. Still can’t.

Anyway, later in my sixth day at the Touraine, a bellhop from the next shift sent word he was sick and the manager asked me to stay on for a few extra hours and I said okay. And I run into Barnhill in the early evening while I’m at the front desk gathering up the bags of a man and his wife in automobile dusters. Barnhill is going out and he sees me just as I stand up straight with my arms and hands full and he tips his bowler at me going by, trying to get my goat. I just keep my face hard and steady and he puts his hat back down on his head and gives it a little tap as he goes out the door and into the night. A few minutes later I forget to talk like a servant to the guy in the duster, I guess—he asks me where the electric call bell is and I say, “Over there,” and don’t mention anything about sir or madam or let-me-lick-the-dust-off-your-boots—and I get a glare from him that I recognize for what it is right off, and still I don’t say anything respectful to try to make it up. I don’t get a tip and I don’t blame him, I guess, seeing as what he’s used to from a guy in my place, but I’m still working up an anger that I hope will stay put till this day is over. Then about ten or so the manager tells me things have slowed down enough, I should go on home, and I haven’t popped anybody yet, so I’m glad to change from my bellhop suit fast and get out of there.

I don’t cut through the Common but go up the mall along Tremont. There are lots of people around. That’s good. I walk along among all these people, some in fancy dress and some in work clothes and some smoking a bummed cigarette and some a Cuban cigar, and we all just go on along together and there’s a sharp breeze blowing, the first little whisper of the winter ahead, and then I’m coming up to the subway entrance at Park Street. The one-armed man with his two fox-colored dogs who walk around on their back legs is still selling the late edition. I pay a penny for it and then I see a crowd over by the little building where the steps go down to the train. I fold the paper and put it in my pocket and stroll over.

At the center of the crowd is an old man with a telescope on a tripod and he’s got a sign up saying ten cents to see the moon. I stand watching for a minute. Some guy makes a big show of pulling out his ten cents for the girl he’s with, and she sits on the little stool beneath the telescope, smoothing out her dress and pushing back her hat piled high with muslin roses, and then she looks into the telescope and she cries out like she’s seen somebody jump off a bridge. The crowd all goes to muttering in wonder at her shock and somebody else steps forward to pay a dime. For all I know, the guy and the girl in the big hat are confederates of the telescope man and they’ve been put up to this little show just to get the crowd going. But I find myself wanting to look, all the same.

And then Barnhill is at my elbow. “You ever want to just go to the moon?” he says.

I look at him. I get the feeling he’s putting the needle in me again, but if he’d like to have a go at me, I wish he’d just do it straight, more like a man. All I know to do is keep my mouth shut.

Then he says, “I figure I owe you a dime. Go look at the moon, on me. Okay?”

He’s got that dime up between us again. I take it.

“Good,” he says.

We both square around and wait for some guy to finish with his look, and I’m not even thinking to give the dime back. I’m not sure why this telescope makes it different, about taking money from John Stanford Barnhill, but it does. Then I get my chance. I step forward and give Barnhill’s money to the telescope man and I say, “I want to see something different.”

The old man holds up a forefinger like he’s got just the thing. He crouches behind his telescope and looks in and swivels it around and then moves aside. I step over and bend down and I look. Against the dark is a small white globe, and it’s ringed all around. “The planet Saturn,” the man says to me. Then he tells the crowd, “This gentleman is now on the planet Saturn, the sixth of our sun’s eight planets,” and he goes on with his pitch. I just ignore him. I watch this other world moving along out there millions of miles away and I wonder who it is that lives on Saturn and what makes them tick. Then the telescope man’s hand is on my shoulder and he says, “Time’s up.”

I straighten, and it takes a moment to get my bearings. I move off toward the Common, away from where I’d left Barnhill. The ring of gawkers opens for me and I’m into the dark, and then Barnhill is beside me again. “You went farther than the moon,” he says.

“I went to your home planet,” I say.

He laughs, though it sounds forced. “I’ve got my ticket back,” he says.

He’s walking with me now and it seems there’s more to this than just trying to show up the bellhop. He smells of whiskey, but he’s walking steady. “You don’t like me,” he says.

“Liking the guests ain’t part of my job,” I say.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” he says.

We’re into an open part of the Common and the breeze has picked up pretty fierce. It’s got a sting to it now.

“I’m finished at the Touraine anyway,” Barnhill says.

I’m not paying any real attention to him. I’m just thinking about getting away from him. “I’ve got to get on home,” I say, though the word catches in my throat: home. I’ve never had to call the tenement Mama and me live in by that name, and it makes me angry at Barnhill, his forcing me to say this.

We’re both stopped now on the path, the empty field before us, the stars and the planets whirling around overhead. What he says about leaving the Touraine finally sinks in.

“Finished?” I say.

Barnhill kind of shivers. “You should wear a hat in this weather,” he says, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t take off his bowler and put it on my head.

It settles in perfect. I can feel the soft inner rim of it ringing across just below my hairline and on around my head and the hat’s light there and it’s even made it like the wind has stopped blowing, though I still can feel the bite of air on my face and hands if I try. But I’m fine inside the hat. I let it stay there. “You buying yourself a house?” I ask.

He runs a hand through his hair and lifts his chin a little. “Not quite,” he says. “My aunt’s cutting me off. She doesn’t think much of me either, as it happens.”

I’m not proud of it, but the first thing out of my mouth is, “I can get you on as a bellhop.”

He looks at me and his face is white from the moon and I find myself wishing he had the guts to pop me. I deserve it and I won’t raise a hand back at him. But he just looks at me and he doesn’t say a word. So I reach up to his hat to take it off and he says, “No. Keep it.”

That’s the last thing I’m about to do. I lift the hat and I put it on his head and he doesn’t resist. I feel the wind sharp on me again. We just look at each other and there’s no more words. Finally I say, “Good night then.”

“Good night,” he says.

The next day, my last at the Hotel Touraine, I’m thinking about John Stanford Barnhill all morning. Then I’m hanging around the front desk and you can hear the call bell going over and over in the office and the manager comes out and says Barnhill’s room number. “I’ll take it,” I say, and the bell’s still ringing as I walk away and I figure he’s drunk and in a bad mood and something in me wants it to go like that, to make things simple again. All the way up in the elevator I’m getting ready for a blowup.

Then I step off on the eighth floor and the chambermaid is hopping around waiting for me and she’s saying, “Come quick, come quick, he’s gone, right in front of me,” and I run down the hall and into Barnhill’s rooms and the sash is thrown open where he was yesterday and the curtains are blowing in and I dash through the smell of his cigars and I go halfway out the window myself and I take in the chestnuts and Hancock’s elms and the wide-open space with some guys out there playing baseball and people moving around, all this before facing what I know has happened. Then I look down, and Barnhill is there, far below, a crowd gathering around him, his arms open wide as if he leaped expecting an embrace.

I pull back in. I turn. The chambermaid is peeking in at the door. “Go get the manager,” I say, and she vanishes.

I stand very still for a long moment, trying to read that moonlit face from last night. But my brain has shut down. There’s nothing inside me except a clattering in my chest like horses’ hooves. And then my eyes focus. The reading table. Cigar butts, long gone cold, in the saucer. And beside them is John Stanford Barnhill’s bowler hat. I find myself panting like a dobbin. The room will be full of people very soon. I press myself to move. I take a step and another and another and I am at the side table and the hat sits there, the color of the night sky, and I put my hand on it, I touch my palm to its high crown, and then I pick it up. I put it on my head and it settles on me right away, like it did last night, like when he put it on me with his own hand. And then I’m out the door, heading by the back stairs to the changing room. There’s other things for me to do in this world. Other kinds of people. But he was right about me needing a hat.

Reading Group Guide

1. The postcard is a clever symbol for modern America. Its informality, brevity of message, and recollection of faraway places seem to echo an American attitude that began to assert itself in the time period in which the stories take place. How does Butler enrich our knowledge of other institutions and events of the early twentieth century in the United States? What is the influence of the immigrant experience in the stories? Of diseases not yet conquered by drugs and children dying young? What is the symbolic significance of the automobile and the airplane? Of the Carnegie libraries? Of the emerging women’s movement? References to the Fourth of July and the Statue of Liberty? Of Indians? Of America’s flexing of military muscle? Of travel? Discuss the different ways these issues appear in the stories. Butler gives us press clippings and postcards from the period. Some of the newspaper articles stand on their own, almost as “sudden fiction” (see “Unique Getaway” about the buttons). This blend of fact and fiction has been used by other writers, such as E. L. Doctorow. Do you like the interweaving? Does it make you feel more akin to the period, or more distanced?

2. Did you find yourself wondering where else the story might have gone, based on the fragment of a postcard? Did the postcard device propel you into the story? Did the first-person narrative establish further immediacy?

3. How are both fear and wonder evoked by the references to Halley’s comet, the phenomenon of 1910? In “The Ironworkers’ Hayride,” the smitten narrator says, “And there is a comet of desire streaking through me, its tail thick with something much denser than Halley’s poison” (p. 50). What is the ironic result for this most rational, fact-ridden young man? Where else in the stories does Halley’s comet appear? (Two instances are on pages 108 and 179).

Discussion Questions on the Stories

1. What is it that Barnhill needs from the narrator/bellboy in “Hotel Touraine”? Out of his empty life, is he attempting human contact? Is he trying to achieve meaning in some way before he blots out his own life? Is that “meaning” achieved, perhaps, in liberating both men? The bellboy says, “There’s other things for me to do in this world. Other kinds of people” (p. 16). Discuss the mix of antagonism and understanding between the two. Is Barnhill a strange kind of double figure? How is the hat used as a symbol? How are cigars used? Explore how both objects connect the men’s lives.

2. “With a world full of foolishly dangerous men, what’s a mother to do?” begins “Mother in the Trenches” (p. 19). Are we persuaded as the story goes on that this mother courage figure has a truth that is denied to or denied by the world leaders and generals? Even if her mission is quixotic, does she achieve something? What? For whom? About going into the trenches, she says, “I descended into a sharp cold smell of earth. I went down, as if this tattered angel had been from hell all along and hell was simply cold and dark, not fire at all” (p. 27). How does this up-close view of war compare to her earlier statement, “I am an American. . . . I am a patriot, as is my son” (p. 22)? Later she says, “We should all do that, all the mothers of the world. . . . Just pack a bag and come out here and carry these children home. The German mothers too. But instead, of course, we kissed them good-bye and told them we were proud . . .” (p. 29). Talk about these conflicts. How does the issue of women’s particular strength and insight connect to other stories?

3. The narrator in “The Ironworkers’ Hayride” is a cost-sheet man who works at a desk and is not considered “a regular fellow” (p. 36). What do we expect from this awkward, inexperienced young man? What is his own sense of urgency and despair? Ironically for this details man, it is miscalculation that both makes and undoes him. How? “And I understood at once how it is that even correctly gathered and accurately calculated numbers can sometimes be irrelevant” (p. 50). Are we startled that it is Minnie, viewed by Milton in imagery of radiance and alabaster, who takes initiative, picks the spot on the wagon, and provides the blanket? It is she, this woman who wants the vote, who offers the concrete advice. “Sometimes you have to face a difficult thing” (p. 51) and ‘sometimes we are compelled to embrace the thing we fear the most” (p. 53). How do her words resonate in the end?

4. In “Carl and I,” how does the opening image of Sarah Bernhardt and camellias set up the central theme? Do you think the narrator’s startling act at the end is inspired partly by Bernhardt and partly by her regrets when she recalls, “We were so careful” (p. 67)? What are the young wife’s options finally?

5. In “This Is Earl Sandt,” what does the pilot represent to the narrator and to the town? “We would peek to the future and cheer it on” (p. 73). What are some analogies in our time? The narrator talks of the Singer building as “the highest building in the world at that moment in the summer of 1909. . . . I was part of a race of creatures of the earth who were remaking themselves into something new” (p. 83). But is Earl Sandt an Icarus figure? How do we react reading this story post–9/11? The narrator is a banker, another careful man. What are some instances when he withholds or resists engagement? What is it that he learns by entering the world and spirit of the dead pilot? Is there an element of doubling? What are further implications of the boy Matthew’s participation, especially his actions at the end?

6. Do we trust the voice of the newsman in “The One in White”? How objective is he about his own life? What are his views on the politics and the military operation of the story? Consider his phrase “Whatever the madness on both sides” (p. 108). Has he learned anything in the last three years since he last looked at the photograph? What is the role of Luisa Morales, the girl in white? Are there parallels between Mexico of a century ago and the present-day Middle East?

7. “Hush now and hold still,” says the husband to the narrator in “No Chord of Music” (p. 114). How is this command subverted by his adventurous wife? At the end, her friend Esther says to Catherine, “Even sitting here, I keep thinking I’m moving,” to which the narrator agrees, “And she was” (p. 124). How are these words a symbol for the new spirit of women? While George regards the Mitchell car as female, the narrator (heroine?) insists it is male. How does sustained imagery support her assertion? Is her relationship as described with the car an active and mutually satisfying one? What is the significance of the marvelous old Indian with his four wives at the end? What might be the expanded meaning of “Vision Quest” (p. 123)?

8. How is frontier life depicted in “Christmas 1910”? What are the narrator’s wry observations about her lot, even in a loving family? Is it understandable that John Marsh’s mission is in conflict with Abigail’s dreaming? Do you find the story a long way from tragedy, even for Abigail who is thwarted? She says, “I should have just blowed in his nose and nickered at him” (p. 135). Her father says, “He’s got grit, the boy” (p. 137). Does Abigail have it, too, and resilience?

9. “Hiram the Desperado” gives us straight off the bat a tough guy, an operator, a gangster-in-the-making selling protection. How does Butler peel the layers off his young protagonist? “Say, we’re just trying to get out of childhood in one piece, all of us. It’s a new century, so they keep reminding us” (p. 144). But what is Hiram’s take on his own world and its threats (see p. 144)? How many of his complaints could be those of many other children, stupefied by school and rainy Sunday afternoons, “of death by boredom at my weepy mother’s side in church” (p. 145)? How do the times influence this boy? “And I dream a little, too, about the Great White Fleet that our President has sent off to circle the world and show them all who’s boss’ (p. 149). How does the boy try to measure up to heroic standards in his daydreaming about Miss Spencer? At the end, what does the reader understand about Miss Spencer’s situation that Hiram does not?

10. In “I Got Married to Milk Can” how are our expectations proved false at the end in O. Henry style? With whom, if anyone, do our sympathies lie in this story? How is Katie drawn so the end clicks shut like a well-made box? Discuss her vision of the future as she anticipates her husband’s saying, “Katie, I have big plans. This is the day and age of people like me and the things I can give to people like you” (p. 173). Later in life is she likely to rethink her opting for milk can over ash can?

11. “The Grotto” forces Clara to question her inherited way of life. What is that life and what are its merits? What differentiates her from the mother into whose shoes she has stepped? In Egypt she says, “I spent the day trying to calm my unease at the boisterousness of the streets” (p. 181). How is her spinster fastidiousness assailed by other aspects of Egypt? “Not that I’d come to Egypt simply to find a quainter Alabama. But I was feeling keenly my own limitations” (p. 182). Is the passing of an era in the South related to Clara’s feeling her limitations? Are we reminded of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”? How is the possibility of real understanding between Muslims and Westerners questioned throughout the story? Intimations of mortality prevail in Clara’s thinking. How? What provokes her to risk going into an alien place such as the grotto? What is it that draws Masud and Clara to their unlikely understanding? Do we think of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India amid its caves of Malabar?

12. “Up by Heart” can be read on one level as a send-up of various biblical stories involving Jacob, Moses, Jesus, and Abraham. How are the stories used? Describe the satirical treatment of evangelism in tent meetings. Is the mysterious stranger who he claims to be? What is the import of “I’m from all parts, as I think you know.” (p. 209)? How is the rattler used as a double-edged symbol? We are reminded of Mark Twain, whose broad comedy often narrows down to a moving human truth. Why is it that the story of Abraham and Isaac continues to haunt and harrow us?

13. “Uncle Andrew” says, “I am losing what little I have cobbled together over the years as a mind” (p. 233). How do his memories lead to his revelation? How is the Missus in gloves with her sugar pecans the inciting force of the story? Discuss the power of W. E. B. DuBois’s question, “Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?” A conflicting voice in old Andrew’s head is “Don’t be uppity, boy” (p. 236). How does Andrew resolve the conflict? Do you think his door slamming is an act of long-simmering revenge? Or is it his only way to snatch at dignity, raising the meek, at the end of his life? How does his “vision of heaven” (p. 238) at the end fulfill his having done “a new thing” (p. 238)? You might want to compare his stream-of-consciousness narration of death approaching with that in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter.

14. “Twins” is built on a series of ironies, of reversals of expectations. What are some? Note, for instance, that Liberty, torch aflame, has her back to Ellis Island III. How, in this shortest of the stories, does Butler capture so many aspects of the immigrant experience? These identical twins, once a single egg split, share the assumption that they are still almost one being and their fates will be bound together. Is it apt that it is Caitlin who should return? What is the picture of Ireland that we learn from a few quiet strokes? As separation looms, Bridget thinks, “I had but a single thought: I can be one of a kind at last. God forgive me” (p. 251). “It’s America,” responds Caitlin, to the unspoken thought. Is it only to the severing from her twin that Bridget refers?

15. “Sunday” is tour de force stream-of–consciousness writing. You may be reminded again of Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” and of Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for their compression of memories. All three stories throw up smoke screens that confuse us about what is real and what is imagined or recalled. In “Sunday,” what are the clues that something ominous is happening on Coney Island? How does the “rockets’ red glare” (p. 255) reinforce the threatening imagery? The narrator’s immigrant dreams have been achieved, as told in a lovely rush of feeling in two pages (pp. 255–256). “Tomorrow is unsettled. Yesterday was full of well-chronicled strife. But I can sit safely here in the middle and read my newspaper in the bright sunlight and let all these lives full of striving flow around me” (p. 257). How does this immigrant voice expand on his gratitude and optimism? On the other hand, what is the significance of his recalling his father’s saying, “If God exists, he is either too savage for our respect or no one in this world knows the first thing about him” (p. 258). In an essay called “Thoughts of God,” Mark Twain wrote, “If men neglected ‘God’s poor’ and ‘God’s stricken and helpless ones’ as He does, what would become of them? It is plain that there is one moral law for heaven and another for the earth.” Talk about these ideas. As the narrator continues to read the newspaper, what is the effect of accumulating detail? And what have his memories of violence done to his father? What might the “sudden tiny flare of light” (p. 266) signify at the end?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie; Ice Cream by Helen Dunmore; The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman; Twelve Bar Blues by Patrick Neate