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Memphis Flyer Out There

Robert Olen Butler goes galactic with 'Mr. Spaceman.'

By Susan Ellis

FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

Mr. Spaceman by Robert Olen Butler (Grove Press), 223 pp., $23

Desi’s got it bad.

Like most of our kind, Desi’s having difficulty working the appropriate words from his brain and through his mouth. But Desi, the narrator of Robert Olen Butler’s novel Mr. Spaceman, is not of our kind. His mouth is a lipless slit, and he’s got no ears. He is an alien.

And like most aliens who go scooting around in their spaceships violating our airspace, he’s on a mission. For a century now, he’s been skimming the planet, abducting its inhabitants so that he might record their words. On one such excursion, he met his wife, Edna Bradshaw, a kind-hearted trailer-dwelling hairdresser from Bovary, Alabama. On another he took up a cowboy who appeared in the first moving picture, and on another, he found a witness to the first manned flight.

This latest mission, though, has got Desi troubled. It’s a biggie, set up to coincide with the dawn of the Earth’s new millennium (not the one we just had but the one at the end of this year). He is playing host to 12, conveniently packaged in a bus named Luck headed from Texas to the casinos in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Among them are a punked-out girl, a Vietnamese refugee, an angry, well-educated black man, an elderly couple, and a former NASA employee. It’s a regular rainbow coalition, though, as Desi discovers, they are all very much alike.

The likeness is in the words, and it’s those words that have infected Desi, whose planet’s inhabitants are telepathic. Words are inadequate vessels for feelings, and Desi himself compensates by taking on advertising slogans and song titles. “Hi,” he says when Luck’s riders first board his spaceship. “My name is Desi. I am a friendly guy. There is a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight. I Would Like to Teach the World to Sing. I Would Like to Buy the World a Coke.” This approach works fine for a stop-gap measure, but it cannot stop the pathology of words — that words lead to yearning and yearning leads to dreams. And by studying humans, Desi must take on their words, and so takes on their yearning and their dreams.

But Mr. Spaceman isn’t all that heavy. In fact, it’s downright cute. Not cute in the sense of learning everything you need to know in kindergarten, or cute as in something Oprah might recommend, but cute as a Pulitzer Prize-winning (for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain) writer would have it. Desi is a friendly guy, adorably so, and his worldview as alien is sweet and pop culture-driven. There are jewels sprinkled about by Butler — little details and one-liners. The spaceship has a Hall of Objects, little items gathered from Earth such as a TV, a Pocket Fisherman, Soap-on-a-Rope, and Quacker, a Beanie Baby duck with its tag still attached. And when Desi is questioned by one of his guests from the bus as to how he, Desi, knows that his species alone has visited Earth, he replies, “Duh? I am a spaceman. I should know.”

Butler is guilty of a minor bit of pandering. First off, these space missions have a whiff of Xenophobia, as all of the abductees are American; you would think, given the law of averages, that someone from China would be snagged. Also, many of the Earthling’s observations, as recorded by Desi, seem too obviously geared toward providing some message about the reach of racism or the harm of religion without reason. Then there’s the fodder Butler has provided for many future English professors in his use of Desi as a God figure. In this last regard, however, the author is clearly fooling as it is much too much to be taken as a serious theme — his 12 guests drink Presbyterian Punch, a lime sherbet concoction just the color of Desi’s blood for goodness sakes.

Finally, there’s the ending, a happy one to be sure. It feels like a cop-out, though, given Butler’s expert build-up. But that’s okay, too. Readers are human and humans yearn.

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