Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Perfume River

by Robert Olen Butler

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain comes a powerful novel about the way the Vietnam War divided families, and a layered portrayal of marriage, brotherhood, and the sum of a life.

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date September 06, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2575-0
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

From one of America’s most important writers, Perfume River is an exquisite novel that examines family ties and the legacy of the Vietnam War through the portrait of a single North Florida family.

Robert Quinlan is a seventy-year-old historian, teaching at Florida State University, where his wife, Darla, is also tenured. Their marriage, forged in the fervor of anti–Vietnam War protests, now bears the fractures of time, both personal and historical, with the couple trapped in an existence of morning coffee and solitary jogging and separate offices. For Robert and Darla, the cracks remain under the surface, whereas the divisions in Robert’s own family are more apparent: he has almost no relationship with his brother, Jimmy, who became estranged from the family as the Vietnam War intensified. William Quinlan, Robert and Jimmy’s father and a veteran of World War II, is coming to the end of his life, and aftershocks of war ripple across all their lives once again, when Jimmy refuses to appear at his father’s bedside. And an unstable homeless man whom Robert meets at a restaurant and at first takes to be a fellow Vietnam veteran turns out to have a deep impact not just on Robert but on his entire family.

Perfume River is a lyrical and emotional exploration of one family’s drama that echoes the lives of so many who are affected by the aftermath of war. It is a profound and poignant book written by an author at the height of his powers, a portrait of family, personal choice, and how war resonates through the American experience.

Tags Literary


“Butler’s Faulknerian shuttling back and forth across the decades has less to do with literary pyrotechnics than with cutting to the chase. Perfume River hits its marks with a high-stakes intensity . . . Butler’s particulars on the two brothers’ marriages are comprehensively adroit . . . Butler’s prose is fluid, and his handling of his many time-shifts as lucid as it is urgent. His descriptive gifts don’t extend just to his characters’ traits or their Florida and New Orleans settings, but to the history he’s addressing . . . “You share a war in one way,” Robert thinks. “You pass it on in another.” Perfume River captures both the agony and subtlety of how that happens.” —Michael Upchurch, New York Times Book Review

“The strength of this novel is its shifting point of view. Butler moves easily among his characters to create a composite portrait of a family that has been wrecked by choices made during the Vietnam War.” —Beth Nguyen, San Francisco Chronicle

“The story builds its force with great care . . . Its power is that we want to keep reading. The entire journey is masterfully rendered, Butler lighting a path back into the cave, completely unafraid.” —Benjamin Busch, Washington Post

“This novel confronts the long aftermath of the Vietnam War . . . Butler roves gracefully . . . across the perspectives of many characters, showing particular tenderness in his depiction of Robert’s wife, Darla, and her attempt to harmonize conflicting parts of her husband’s life.” —New Yorker (Briefly Noted)

“No synopsis can convey the deceptive richness of Butler’s storytelling. The writing style, precise and beautiful, discloses more than the simple surface action of any one passage . . . Butler moves seamlessly between points of view, sometimes within the same paragraph . . . [A] deftly slip-sliding narrative . . . Butler greatly enlarges our sense of what the Vietnam War cost to a generation . . . [A] quietly bristling book . . . Perfume River tells a human story that sums up in an entire era of American life.” —Chauncey Mabe, Miami Herald

“The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain revisits the Vietnam War in this contemporary novel about a family still wrestling with the conflict . . . Butler shifts POV seamlessly among his believably complicated characters.” —Tom Beer, Newsday

“A moving story of Vietnam’s aftershocks . . . Poignant . . . [An] insightful portrait of a family shaped and shaken by war . . . Perfume River focuses on fathers and sons, but it also gives us a moving portrait of long marriages . . . Butler describes in wry, elegant detail . . . all the little battles and victories on the home front.” —Colette Bancroft, Tampa Bay Times

“In Perfume River, Butler continues in his sensitive, highly nuanced, roaming style to explore the repercussions the [Vietnam] war has had on its American veterans, their families and their relationships . . . Eloquent . . . Once again, Butler has written a meaningful novel for the Vietnam War generation. And for their children and grandchildren.” —Repps Hudson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“An elegant work of fiction . . . Butler has amazed me with his uncanny ability to bore deeply inside his characters’ hearts and minds and illuminate their deepest thoughts and emotions . . . Butler consistently offers up believable and insightful evocations of his characters’ innermost feelings. He is also adept at two of the novelist’s most difficult tasks: exposition and building a narrative to an unexpected ending . . . Butler handles this seamlessly . . . The ending is a surprise that’s only one of the many satisfying elements in this terrific novel.” —Marc Leepson, VVA Veteran

“As smart and eloquent as anything [Butler has] done before . . . This novel is rich in characterization, elegantly written and smart . . . Perfume River holds the reader tight as the action moves to its conclusion.” —Don Noble, Alabama Public Radio

“[A] thought-provoking new novel.” —Susan Larson, WWNO, “The Reading Life”

“[An] extraordinary novel . . . Butler’s elegant return to literary fiction proves his skill and grace once again.” —Allison K. Hill, Daily Breeze
(Fall’s Must-Read Books)

“Butler’s most famous work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, explored the Vietnam War and its aftermath from the perspective of the Vietnamese. With Perfume River, Butler argues that the war continues to exact a psychic toll on American soldiers and destroyed families, as well . . . Butler’s prose moves seamlessly between 2015 and flashbacks, narrating personal histories in the present tense.” —Sean Kinch, Chapter 16

“This latest from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Butler astutely reveals the Vietnam War’s continuing impact on America through two families . . . By the end of this pristinely written novel, we come to see what war does to everyone. A complex story told with poignancy and an economy of means; highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Robert Olen Butler . . . has written eloquent works about Vietnam and its effect on families. He returns to these themes in Perfume River, a heartbreaking story of fathers and sons and their expectations and disappointments . . . Perfume River is a powerful work that asks profound questions about betrayal and loyalty. There are marvelous descriptions throughout . . . A provocative novel.” —Michael Magras, BookPage

“An exceptional novel.” —Advance Reading Copy

“The prolific author best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, returns to mine the fraught relationships of military fathers and sons in this searching portrait.” —Gina Webb, Atlanta Journal Constitution (13 Fall Books That Will Change the Way You See the South)

“A deeply meditative reflection on aging and love, as seen through the prism of one family quietly torn asunder by the lingering effects of the Vietnam War. Butler, returning to contemporary literary fiction after three outstanding historical thrillers, shows again that he is a master of tone, mood, and character, whatever genre he chooses to explore. This is thoughtful, introspective fiction of the highest caliber, but it carries a definite edge, thanks to an insistent backbeat that generates suspense with the subtlest of brushstrokes.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Butler’s assured, elegant novel explores a family fractured by the Vietnam War as its members face the losses of age . . . Eddying fluidly through its half-century span, the book speaks eloquently of the way the past bleeds into the present, history reverberates through individual lives, and mortality challenges our perceptions of ourselves and others.” —Publishers Weekly

“The climactic scene . . . is devastating and beautifully written. Many weighty themes . . . the shadow of Vietnam, the push and pull of father-son relationships, the pitfalls of long-term marriages, and the psychic toll of aging . . . Butler pulls it all together into a story that’s both complex and meaningful.” —Kirkus Reviews

“What I so like about Perfume River is its plainly-put elegance. Enough time has passed since Viet Nam that its grave human lessons and heartbreaks can be—with a measure of genius–almost simply stated. Butler’s novel is a model for this heartbreaking simplicity and grace.” —Richard Ford

“When we go out on a limb and declare that a Pulitzer Prize winner has written his finest book, and will earn consideration to be one of less than a handful of repeaters in this pinnacle of American writing awards’ almost 100 year history, we realize the boldness of the statement. Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River is sheer story-telling genius that explores multi-family conflicts and long-term PTSD through the inner thoughts of the book’s magnificently crafted characters. This brilliant approach and gut-wrenching narrative was as challenging as any book I’ve ever devoured. This year’s most powerful read!” —Jake Reiss, bookseller at The Alabama Booksmith


Longlisted for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction
One of the Millions‘ Most Anticipated Books of the Year


They will not speak again about the war. Not on this day. Not, as it turns out, ever again.

In his mind now, in his bed, Robert has had enough.

The room is cold.

He wants his first cup of coffee.

He draws back the covers.

He sits, puts his feet on the floor.

But he has come this far on Labor Day, 1967, and the rest of it must play through him so he can drink his coffee with the past relegated once more to the past.

Much of that final scene is a blur. It wasn’t about him, after all. He was simply a witness, standing apart. He’s not even sure where they all are in the house. He can only see Jimmy and Pops. They’re shouting at each other. Likely they’re in the kitchen, because Mom walks out, brushing past Robert. He should follow her. But he doesn’t.

He stays, though for a long while only in body.

He tunes out the words, as Jimmy is drawn by his father into the politspeak he said he despises. High-decibel politspeak that goes on and on.

Until abruptly the voices cease.

For a moment the room rings with silence.

Robert takes notice.

Jimmy and Pops are standing close, facing each other.

And then Jimmy begins to speak, but softly.

Robert listens. He misses some of the words, but he gets the gist. It’s about a murderous war. It’s about those who defy their country. Then Jimmy’s voice rises and Robert hears clearly: “Those are the real heroes.”

And William raises his right hand and slaps his son across the face. Jimmy’s face jerks away from Robert’s view.