Had a Good Time: Stories From American Postcards
By Robert Olen Butler
Grove, 267 pp., illustrated, $23
Robert Olen Butler's 13th book is a collection of stories set in the years between 1906 and 1917, a checkered patch of American history that included a world war, influenza and tuberculosis epidemics, waves of eager immigrants, and the greed, ambition, optimism, and unceasing labor of a nation moving to the forefront of the world economy. Each of the 15 stories in ''Had a Good Time" blossoms from a similar source: cryptic messages on actual postcards from Butler's collection. While he seems especially interested in loneliness and the friction between classes, his enormous imaginative range spans the first-person narratives of a bellboy in a fancy Boston hotel, a former Louisiana slave, a rose-growing Yonkers mother, a journalist covering the Mexican scene, a father witnessing a plane crash, a troublesome schoolboy, the daughter of a South Dakota sodbuster -- and this is only a partial list. As he managed to do so successfully in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, ''A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain," Butler inhabits these people with eerie emotional accuracy. He changes the narration to suit each character's voice, and brings wide swaths of early 20th-century America to life with a few deft strokes.
In ''Christmas 1910," one of the strongest stories, the postcard (copies of all the postcards are published here front and back) shows only a tin-roofed shed, a few horses, and a woman in a long dark dress. It reads: ''My dear gallie; Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. This my barn (sic). Am hugging my saddle horse. Best thing I have found in S.D. to hug. Am sending you a trifle with this. With love, Abba." From that scrap of reality, Butler sews the garment of an imaginary young woman's intense loneliness. Abigail and her family return from a visit to her brother's nearby claim and find a young stranger sitting in their kitchen. ''We all left our houses unlocked for each other and for just such a wayfarer," she says. The stranger is on his way to Montana to work a cattle ranch ''and to make my own fortune someday," and Abigail's parents insist he spend the night. The invitation sparks a fire of expectation in the unmarried young woman, but that blaze of possibility is doused in a one-page conversation so cryptic and perfectly pitched that it rings its haunting note to the last cold, stormy scene.
Butler is similarly on key in ''Sunday," a short, simple tale of a middle-aged man who dies in his beach chair at Coney Island, just when his life is finding its happy balance. The reader feels the sorrow and panic of his passing as if from inside. And in ''The Grotto," we follow a middle-aged Alabama spinster on her visit to Egypt, and experience as she does ''the squeeze of anxiety" when she tries to break out of her closeted life, and her disappointment at the difficulty of ever truly connecting with another soul.
Death, solitariness, and the strains and joys of familial love all haunt these pages. The author's home territory is the unprotected nature of human existence, and that vulnerability transcends every era. In ''Hiram the Desperado," a budding juvenile delinquent muses, a bit improbably: ''I'm sitting around in a kid's body and I'm waiting for influenza and diphtheria and dengue fever and the black cholera and if you go out to play, one of those swell automobiles will run you down" before sliding into a wonderful section on a schoolboy's boredom and the dismal Puget Sound rain. With the wife of a tuberculosis patient narrating ''Carl and I," and the above-mentioned Yonkers mother visiting her son in the trenches of World War I, Butler uses death as a background against which to cast the question of ''how to act in this world we're not quite suited for." But he also shows a lighter side in the terribly funny ''Up by Heart," where a would-be preacher confronts his cheroot-smoking God; and in ''The Ironworkers' Hayride," where a bachelor's inexperience provides the laughs. And he's especially adept at replicating the awkward conversations of courtship.
Everywhere, unusual historical details make the settings real. In ''Christmas 1910," for example, we learn about the different qualities of tar paper used to keep the wind out of prairie homes, and in ''No Chord of Music" how, exactly, to start a 1906 Mitchell D-4.
There are flaws here. Butler is better at creating predicaments than he is at bringing them to a satisfying conclusion. The otherwise moving ''Uncle Andrew" ends on a sour, obvious note, as does ''No Chord of Music." He can lapse into an easy sentimentality at times, or strive unsuccessfully for the quick, perfect touch achieved by Babel and Hemingway in their best short tales. In such moments, ''Had a Good Time" left me feeling the way I feel after reading a friend's postcard: intrigued but not fulfilled, tantalized by the limitless variety of place and time and character, but wanting to bury myself deeper in their complexity. There is a great deal to admire in this collection -- crisp writing, marvelous imagining, the discussion of large, existential questions that are as central to life now as they were a hundred years ago. But sometimes Butler glides over the slick, pitted surfaces like an accomplished skater cutting figure eights, spinning and leaping, without giving us enough sense of the intricate layering of sweat and deep feeling that underlies the patterns he weaves and the lives he imagines.
Roland Merullo's fifth novel, ''A Little Boston Love Story," will be published next June.