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A Vietnam vet looking for love meets a Vietnamese daughter of a GI.

By Paul Kafka

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

THE DEEP GREEN SEA, by Robert Olen Butler. Henry Holt, 226 pages, $23.

The great stories are reinvented in each generation. The one about the guy falling in love with the woman who turns out to be his mother, or the girl unknowingly falling for Dad, has been selling tickets since Sophocles. But unless the Oedipus/Electra myths are infused with new meanings, these recycled tragedies are often pretentious and boring.

Robert Olen Butler's The Deep Green Sea avoids that fate, succeeding against formidable odds in bringing Electra to contemporary Vietnam. The credibility of his storytelling is strained in the first chapters, but after the midpoint, Butler is entirely believable, and the novel races suspensefully along. For those familiar with the author, The Deep Green Sea is an ambitious extension of a natural storyteller's gift; to those approaching his work for the first time, the book may at first appear heavy-handed and sentimental. But stick with it.

Butler, who often works in the first person, does not hesitate to take on the English-as-a-second-language of characters who are native Vietnamese speakers. The Deep Green Sea is written entirely in two voices: that of Tien, a young Vietnamese tour guide, and of Ben, a middle-aged vet returning to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to streets he knew as a soldier. In their own words, Tien and Ben alternately carry forward the story of their anything-but-casual love affair. Ben is a truck driver from an unidentified Midwestern steel town -- a man apart, caught up in solitary meditations upon times past. Tien is a skeptical, level-headed daughter of the revolution, and a practicing Buddhist. She worships her ancestors -- especially her American GI father, who she assumes died in the war -- with daily prayers and incense. At times Tien's limited English detracts from Butler's prose, as does her attitude, both in the sense of the things she thinks and the poses she strikes. She is a bit too sweet and submissive. She regards Ben as a giant or a dragon.

He worked once driving a great truck many thousands of miles across his country . . . gripping the steering wheel of this truck, and I love the corded veins here as I hold his hand. "It is all right," I say. I lift his hand and put it on my . . . . yearning nipple.

This sort of passage works against Butler's myth-making, recalling instead bad American pornography. Ben's narrative, too, makes a bad first impression. What is Ben doing in bed with Tien, a woman young enough to be his daughter? What, for that matter, is he doing back in Vietnam? His gruff workingman's pronouncements are not endearing, even when he tries to be sensitive.

She tells me I'm the first man she's ever done it with and I stop right off. . . . To my surprise, my face goes hot and I get a feeling in my eyes like when you step in front of a coke oven and you take that first blast of heat before you start shoveling the spill.

Luckily, both Tien and Ben soon reveal depths of thought and diction that rescue The Deep Green Sea from the Bridges of Madison County school of unreadable soft porn. Tien's inner life -- a weave of speculation about the mother who abandoned her and fantasies about her father, who she is convinced misses her in his afterlife and now lives through her -- is thrown into turmoil by Ben, whose lovemaking propels her from a troubled past toward a hopeful future. Ben himself, in his reminiscences about the war and its aftermath, steers clear of the cliché-ridden waters of Vietnam fiction. He says he recovered from the trauma of his war experiences after only a few years, and he is not full of self-pity for having lived through these horrors in the first place. Instead, he wonders, in midlife, why he cannot find a woman to love or a sense of place on earth. And suddenly, with Tien, he gains both. The narrative gathers momentum when Ben, nagged by doubts that Tien could be his daughter, seeks to put his fears to rest. Tien's mother, fearing she would be punished for having consorted with the enemy, left the child with her grandmother and fled Saigon as the city fell to the Communists. But Tien is convinced that her mother is not the prostitute who was Ben's girlfriend 28 years before. After all, there were some 30,000 children born to American servicemen and Vietnamese women. Ben himself just wants to make sure , and asks Tien to take him to the village where she believes her mother is living. He longs for an end to his anxieties. He tells us:

The rubber trees vanish and now there's a pond . . . . shaped like a sickle blade and the sun flares there and is gone . . . . The road goes on and though there's no white line and no flat-out running, it does me some real good. Things are clean in my head out here, with an engine in front of me and a place to go to. And Tien is still beside me. She hasn't disappeared in order for me to feel like this.

Ben has the tragic hero's capacity for looking at things straight on, and he knows that his feet led him to the same neighborhood in the same quarter of the city where he lost his virginity with his Vietnamese girlfriend during the war -- the neighborhood where Tien was born and has lived ever since. But until the final pages, Butler stacks the deck so it appears equally likely that Ben and Tien will turn out to be father and daughter -- or two lonely souls, fated only to fall in love with each other. This uncertainty renders the novel impossible to put down for the last hundred pages. The outcome will not be revealed here. Suffice it to say that Butler is as fearless as Agamemnon returning from Troy, and that his novel earns the right to echo Sophocles.

Paul Kafka's novel love.enter, which won the Los Angeles Times first fiction prize in 1993, is now available in paperback.

From The Deep Green Sea

I cross to the shrine and I kneel and my hands go through the motions they know so well. . . . I take a match from the box and I strike it and the flame hisses itself alive and I touch the tip of the first stalk of incense, angling the match . . . . I do this for the second stalk and the third and I put the match flame before my lips and I blow the flame away. I drop the match beside me. I press my palms around the three sticks of incense and I pull them from the sand. I bow my head.

Father, I say inside me. Father, I am here.

I lift the incense, help the smoke go up and into the spirit world. I think of him turning his head. He smells the scent of my prayers, carried from this fire with no flame, and he moves from wherever it is that he goes in that other world -- I try to see the place but there is nothing, only darkness -- and he comes to me now.

I say that I think of him turning my way, coming to me, but I cannot picture his face. I have tried, often, in my prayers, but whenever I see a face, I know very clearly that it is only me, only my own construction from the faces of other men: an Italian tourist, a Russian official, Paul Newman. But though I cannot see him, he does come to me here, my father. That much I do know, also very clearly, and he is not a figment of my own mind, he is real.

Father, I say, I offer your spirit the peace that comes from the love and prayers and devotion of your child and I ask you for the harmony and the peace that a father can give to his family.

These are the words I always say, following the custom of the Vietnamese people. I am told that even some of our government officials pray to their ancestors. We are a communist country, caring for the masses according to the truths of Karl Marx, but we are also Vietnamese. I think perhaps the spirit of Karl Marx is wandering lonely and afraid in the afterlife because he and his children did not understand certain other truths. They were from Germany.

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