two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
user_rating: 
0

Stories from American Postcards

A-HadaGoodTimeThe 15 short stories in this collection are based on vague clues left on early 20th-century postcards. Each story, in fact, is introduced with a reproduction of the postcard that served as its inspiration. Ranging in tone from slapstick to romantic drama, the tales follow new immigrants to America, a young woman setting up home on the Great Plains, and a reporter following the U.S. military overseas. Religion, suffragettes, and automobile rides round out this unusual insight into the early American dream.
Grove/Atlantic. 267 pages. $23. ISBN: 0802117775

Portland Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although there’s rarely a good time to be had in Had a Good Time, Butler’s first-person narratives show an amazing range of voice as his characters confront death, disease, war and affliction. Rather than having a good time in reading them, I had instead a good read." Alice Evans

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Detractors will call Butler’s premise a gimmick, admirers a conceit; either way, the challenge to the writer is formidable. … [T]he results are a consistently entertaining display of this Pulitzer prize-winner’s varied skills." Thomas Mallon

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
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 …" Roland Merullo

Providence Journal 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Here he sometimes labors too much to layer historic details—prices of cars, dates of international events—around his characters to show us he’s done his homework. … It all feels like a Fiction 101 exercise." Tracey Minkin

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"His bored rancher’s wife, his resentful bellhop, his noble former slave … seem purchased like old postcards on some eBay of the historical imagination." Christopher Benfey

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 1 of 5 Stars
"Butler may be a lyrical and sensual writer, but he does not know how to evoke history. … Dimpled by cliches and drippy bits of hokum Americana, it is far and away Butler’s worst book to date." John Freeman

Critical Summary

This varied collection and the unusual adventures of Americans facing the dawn of a new century won a few critics over. A man falls in love with a girl with a wooden leg; a woman pines away for her dying husband. Still another jumps off a hotel balcony. Most reviewers, however, expected more from Butler. The blame might be better placed on the postcards themselves. Only a few were suited for fully realized characters and conflicts. Others, unfortunately, only serve as a jumping off point for clichés and wearying talk of the Good Old Days—which, considering most of these old postcards led to death, must not have been so good, after all.

Also by the Author

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Stories | Robert Olen Butler (1992): A collection of first-person short stories about Vietnamese immigrants and refugees in suburban New Orleans. A 2001 edition from Grove Press includes two subsequently published stories: "Salem" and "Missing."