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RIPPED FROM TABLOID HEADLINES, LITTLE PIECES OF THE TRUTH

TABLOID DREAMS
By Robert Olen Butler
Henry Holt
213 pages, $22.95

All the titles of the short stories in Robert Olen Butler's new collection, "Tabloid Dreams," are set inside quotation marks, as if they were headlines lifted from the tabloids on our popular newsstands. With titles like "Nine-Year-Old Boy Is World's Youngest Hit Man" and "Doomsday Meteor Is Coming," the reader might expect Butler's narrative treatment of this "sensational" material to be profoundly ironic.

But what distinguishes these stories from literary burlesque is Butler's remarkable ability to insinuate himself into the minds and especially the voices of his star-crossed protagonists. In "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover," hairdresser Edna Bradshaw meets an E.T.-like alien in a darkened Wal-Mart parking lot in Bovary, Ala. "You seem always to say what is inside your head without any attempt to alter it," the spaceman -- he's named Desi -- tells her. In his rational mind, that's the highest compliment possible. And as a storyteller, it works for Butler, too.

Butler, who will read from this collection at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center, 2495 Main St. as sponsored by UB's Butler Chair and Just Buffalo Literary Center, is a writer of considerable imaginative range and emotional intelligence. A native of Granite City, Ill., he studied theater at Northwestern University and earned a master's in playwriting from the University of Iowa.

Following a tour of duty in Vietnam (where he served in counterintelligence as a Vietnamese linguist), Butler returned home as editor in chief of a New York City business weekly. For nearly a decade he moonlighted on a succession of novels, six of which were published in the 1980s. Though the novels won Butler critical praise and a position teaching creative writing at McNeese State University in Louisiana, their sales were disappointing to both the author and his publishers.

Butler's subsequent "breakthrough" as a fiction writer came when he was asked to contribute a short story to National Public Radio's "The Sound of Writing" series. Convinced that he had no finished stories worth contributing, he rewrote of some passages he had edited out of his 1989 novel "The Deuce" concerning the lives and social customs of a group of Vietnamese immigrants trying to make their new home in America. Key to the rewrite was a change in the narrative voice: Butler had his Vietnamese expatriates narrate their stories in the first person, challenging his readers to more fully empathize with the immigrants' experience of dislocation and foreignness.

The result of Butler's creative tinkering was the short story "Crickets" -- an account of how Vietnamese boys catch and train insects to fight for wagering -- and a new narrative technique that would yield 14 other story ideas. The collection of these stories was published as "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain" (Henry Holt, 1992), and the volume went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993, the Rosenthal Award for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and consideration as a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Catapulted from near-obscurity to the high profile of a Pulitzer Prize winner, Butler published another dense novel, "They Whisper," (1994), featuring a compulsive first-person narrator whose self-described mission is to "understand the nature of physical intimacy between men and women."

In "Tabloid Dreams," however, we have what Butler surely intends as his most accessible work to date. While each story title mimics the kind of vulgar/fantastic headline we might skim while standing in a supermarket checkout line, Butler's twist is to develop each of these predicaments as if it represented some literal truth. The first-person narrator in each of these dozen stories quickly establishes a measure of credibility as a voice that Butler wields as an existential counterweight to the implausibility of the situation. As with the myths of classical antiquity, we know these stories to be fanciful in the objective sense, but quite possibly illustrative of some principle of human nature or hidden truth about the self.

In "Boy Born With Tattoo of Elvis," Butler brings his 16-year-old narrator to the realization that sexuality has more to do with which secrets one chooses to keep rather than those one reveals. Likewise, in the hilarious "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot," language is never adequate to express the trajectory of memory and desire.

No matter how surreal the story's premise, Butler anchors each of his protagonists with an authentic personality that won't float off on a whim. Thus, "Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philandering Husband" reads like an episode of "The Twilight Zone"; "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire" takes place in a parallel universe in which plump Midwestern women bake goodies every day ("mounds and rows and tin-fulls of sweet little lies") in a kind of shamanistic ritual. Several of the stories play off their tabloid origins, with the female publishing executive in "Woman Struck by Car Turns Into Nymphomaniac" seeking carnal vengeance against the tabloid editor who ran her story in his rag.

The most poignant story of the lot, however, is one we wish could be true. In "JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction," the 35th president of the United States, heavily disguised and crippled with age and by the bullets which "killed only the editor in my brain," slips inconspicuously into the auction of his late wife's possessions at Sotheby's. He proceeds to reminisce about the days of Camelot on the Potomac while a horde of investment bankers, Saudi sheiks and sun-dried Eurotrash proceeds to bid on his legacy.

It's a heartbreaking piece, full of historical detail. At one point, the president makes eye contact with a Jackie look-alike in the crowd. She's even dressed in Jackie's pearls and pillbox hat. He flees the room, but she follows, mistaking him for the film director John Ford.

Kennedy's final words are haunting: "What is it about all these things of a person that won't fade away? The things you seek out over and over and you look at intently and you touch. Or touch with the silent movement of your mind in the long and solitary night. Surely these things are signs of love. In a world where we don't know how to stay close to each other, we try to stay close to these things. In a world where death comes unexpectedly and terrifies us as the ultimate act of forgetting, we try to remember so that we can overcome death. And so we go forth together in love and in peace and in deep fear, my fellow Americans, Jackie and I and all of you."

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