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A Small Hotel

by Robert Olen Butler

Grove Press | 2011 | 241 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Broken Love

You have to be prepared for a book like A Small Hotel.  Slight, intense, elliptical, it’s a book that requires concentration and forbearance.  Brace yourself for the deep renderings of the slightest movement; stay still for the immersion in New Orleans—the water smells, the faint sound of a train whistle, the feel of alcohol sliding down a throat.

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler takes what’s small—the label on a bottle of Scotch, for example, and expands its meaning exponentially, so the label becomes a source for meditation on a housewife’s loneliness: “The Scotch is a deep amber and she looks closely at the Jacobean manor house on the label, a holly tree next to it, nearly as tall as the top of the pitched roof. This house must exist somewhere, she thinks.  Two hundred years ago a woman stood at the third-floor window and looked out on her lawn and thought she could use a drink, could really use a nice old Scotch to burn her tongue.  I could use a drink, Kelly thinks.” 

Longing, desire, and silence are the subjects of A Small Hotel, ephemeral subjects to be sure.  It is not a book that takes you from point A to point B, and the “dramatic arc” so talked about in English classes, is virtually missing in this story that circles continuously, a rippling wave that is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.

It’s as if Butler wants to take both magnifying glass and scalpel to his characters.  He wants to at once dissect his subjects to reveal the meat and bone of them, and to enlarge them so we readers feel attached to their very souls.  In his book we recognize ourselves, but not completely.  In spite of a universal feel, the characters remain truly and heartbreakingly specific: Kelly and Michael Hays, a couple whose marriage is unraveling.

And yet in some ways we wouldn’t recognize these characters in a line-up.  We know that Michael is a successful lawyer and Kelly works in politics, but we do not see them at work.  We are too close to their inner workings, their minds and flesh to see them from the “outside.” This book is dreamy; it continuously loops so you begin to feel that the characters’ thoughts are your thoughts; the characters’ movements, your movements.  There is a deep sadness in this book, a dose and a half of sadness, but it is also a love story.

Kelly and Michael meet during Mardi Gras—randomly, within the chaos of the event.  In fact, Michael’s first act is to “save her” from a bullying group of men who are demanding that she lift up her top and reveal her breasts.  Michael pretends to be her boyfriend and cunningly maneuvers her away from the thugs. Whatever feelings they later have for each other, there remains a question of whether the two were “destined” to meet on that day:  “She needs to go back to the way this all began between her and Michael, from the start, from the time when Michael was nearby but they had no idea each other even existed, when the smallest impulse in her—for a drink, for a pee—would have put her in a slightly different place at a slightly different time and her life would have been profoundly changed forever.”

After meeting each other, Michael tells her if she wants, he will just walk away into the crowd, that they never have to see each other again.  Of course this isn’t what happens—they are drawn to each other; they go to a café and find that the silence that falls between them is a silence of knowingness rather than boredom.  For Michael, this silence is what he craves; for Kelly, the silence between them eventually becomes deafening.  He never tells Kelly that he loves her.  Even on their wedding day, he avoids using words he finds sentimental or phony.  Rather than relying on any false note, he would rather say nothing.  The stoicism of Michael is ultimately his undoing and Kelly can’t abide by it.

Flash forward to middle age and the two are on the verge of divorce.  In fact, the book begins at the critical moment when Kelly is supposed to sign the final divorce papers.  Rather than go through with it, Kelly retreats to the small hotel where she and Michael had gone numerous times to celebrate various milestones in their marriage.  At the hotel, Kelly’s emotions waver from sappy to determined.  She lines up the forty-some Percocets that she imagines she’ll use by the end of the night, after her mind has reconciled her present state with her past.  She wonders how her marriage has come to this.  Within the decay of the marriage, however, she still sees the tiniest bit of light, a mere spark.  But she doesn’t trust that spark anymore.

In the meantime, Michael is seen in full regalia at a southern costume ball with his new girlfriend, Laurie.  Laurie is a much younger woman, not much older than Michael’s daughter. Realizing that Michael is out partying the night away while his wife is contemplating suicide, the reader might want to throw the book down and scream, only to realize it’s more complicated than it appears.  Butler skillfully and deliberately paces the novel so the reader doesn’t learn the truth behind the demise of the marriage until much later in the game.  As in most failed marriages, both parties are to blame.

In a beautiful described scene, Kelly leaves the hotel and wanders around New Orleans (a man tries to pick her up, but she refuses his advances).  In a sense, New Orleans is another character in the book and is portrayed with a rich vibrancy—Mardi Gras, the jazz clubs, the plantation where Michael goes—all are arrestingly, even exotically described.  Similarly, the hotel room itself is infused with tactile vividness: “The smell of the place is always the same.  Old wood and old rugs and fresh sheets from the open balcony doors, the sweet but tainted smell of the Quarter, jasmine and roux and shellfish brine, beer and piss and mildew, and something of the river too, and the swamp, and a hard rain that passed by, and ozone and coffee, and sex, Michael’s smells and her smells: can all of this be inside her in this room at this moment?  Probably.  She is weeping.”

Throughout the flow of the book Kelly spies a young couple at the hotel.  She hears them laughing and spies on them as they take off their clothes to swim in the pool.  Presumably, they are duplicates of her and Michael, innocent in their love before the callous wear of the years have hardened them against each other.  Later the couple will look up at her and see an older woman looking down at them from a window.  What they sense is the woman’s sadness, but still apparent is her beauty and heart bursting (even as she plans to end it all) with life.

It’s brave of Robert Olen Butler to write this moody, unique little book, considering his recently failed marriage., which of course makes it all the more fascinating. It’s different from Butler’s other works (though his writing is always sensual) in tone and purpose. He so closely imagines these people.  How strange I felt when I left the world of this book to return to the “real world.”  Somehow the world of this book seemed more authentic than the world I actually exist in.

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