A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler

Smallhotel  A Small Hotel: A Novel by Robert Olen Butler

 Grove Press, August 2011

This is why I try to avoid reading other reviews of books before I write my own thoughts. According to a major newspaper's book blog, Butler's latest novel comes uncomfortably close to mirroring his own 1995 divorce, made infamous after an extremely personal email he wrote went astray. An email about why his marriage failed, citing specifics about his ex-wife's past.

I'll be honest, knowing Butler was at least inadvertently responsible for this happening pre-disposes me to feel a little disgusted, but I know I'm projecting my own prejudices and that's irresponsible. A writer's personal life should not have anything to do with any assessment of his art. It also hasn't escaped me that this newspaper's (I don't want to give them any more curious readers) intention in mentioning Butler's divorce fiasco in the context of this novel may be ethically suspect, stepping over the line comparing real life with fiction, judging a writer's art by way of one particular incident. That makes me more disgusted. I believe that's called opportunism.

Putting that aside, I very much enjoyed the novel. I found it well-framed, using a couple's present-day divorce to bracket remembered episodes throughout their 24-year marriage, flashing back and forward, starting the day Kelly Hays doesn't show up at the courthouse to sign final divorce papers. Instead, she flees to the New Orleans hotel where she and husband Michael first got to know each other, spent their honeymoon, and returned to often throughout their marriage.

On the same day, Michael takes his 29-year old girlfriend to an antebellum costume party at a plantation home an hour away. The two haven't consummated their relationship but intend to the same evening Kelly's in New Orleans drinking scotch and contemplating a drastic step.

We're also given a bit of back story: both Michael and Kelly grew up with distant fathers they loved intensely, leading Michael to become withdrawn and Kelly to crave what she never had as a child. This proves to be key in the eventual demise of their marriage, as well as a factor in relation to their own 20-year old daughter.

A plot like this could well have turned out to be schmaltzy and melodramatic, but it wasn't anything like that. I was annoyed by the overuse of the expression "waiting a beat" – "a beat" already becoming a convention – but it was a book I could hardly stand to put down and couldn't wait to pick back up again.

Reading back through the plot description I'm baffled as to how Butler managed to avoid turning this into a Hallmark Special script. Maybe it's because the issues he raises – the importance of communication in a marriage, and how the lack of it can ultimately bring about its downfall – are so true. Or perhaps the seriousness with which he approached it and the language he used, avoiding any heaving breasts or throbbing organs. Had it been otherwise I wouldn't have even bothered addressing the novel.

Lacking the time to go back and thoroughly analyze his prose style, I can only say he pulled it off with aplomb. It's a great read, rendering any resemblance this book may have to a former real-life relationship moot. Because the last time I checked an author was allowed to use life experience, so long as there's nothing libelous, and divorce isn't really a unique situation you wouldn't expect to find in a book. If it were otherwise there would have been a lot of books left unwritten.

Did I miss something? If I did I'm mighty angry I didn't get the memo.



Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1992 collection of short stories: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

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