Desi is a spaceman who has a way with words. Listening to them, that is. He's been hovering over Earth for years, occasionally beaming up earthlings and telepathically auditing their personal histories. At the opening of Robert Olen Butler's metaphysical comedy, the date is December 30, 2000. Desi has beamed up a busload of gamblers bound for a Louisiana casino. His wife, Edna Bradshaw--beamed up earlier from Bovary, Alabama--is making sausage balls, a dish she believes will comfort the astonished visitors. Together, Desi and Edna put everyone so at ease that the abductees quickly become disciples.
Butler's narrator is a happy comic creation, a deadpan alien in love with his wife and her fine set of knockers: "There are three things about this planet which are too wonderful for me. Make that four things. The way of dreams in the mind; the way of tears in the eyes; the way of words in the mouth; and the way of my wife Edna Bradshaw when she acts like a cat and lovenibbles me into her arms." In a novel that eludes classification, Butler propels Desi's linguistic struggles, busload of disciples, and attempts to plumb the mystery of human yearning to a tight climax as he plans his first public appearance on Earth, which his new followers believe is a second coming. Mr. Spaceman is by turns a fond satire of science fiction, an ode to the South, and an exploration of marital dynamics that's as besotted with detail as any Anne Tyler novel--though the perspective tilts a little off-center. Edna gives her spaceman a fond pinch on the cheek, and he observes,
Her hand lunges forward and grabs a sizeable part of my cheek and squeezes and jiggles it. This physical attack is very distressing to me, especially given the sudden light-heartedness of her demeanor as she does it. This is a side to Edna that shocks me, and the violence goes on. I am bearing it the best I can and now Edna even says, "Oh you spaceman," in that cheery, loving voice that I have grown to recognize in spite of the neutrality of the words themselves. I am very confused and her attack on my cheek ceases and her hand drops and I think I may have missed something. I think she has meant this gesture as a friendly thing. After all, she does not have suckers on her fingers.
Butler also frequently digresses into the narrative voices of the earthlings in their monologues about their lives. Alas, so appealing is Desi's narrative voice that these (admittedly often virtuoso) forays into other voices offer a degree of frustration. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
An alien with a heart of gold beams up 12 people on a casino-bound bus on the eve of the millennium in a last-ditch effort to understand humanity before making his long-planned descent to earth in Butler's boundlessly imaginative tale of self-discovery. Desi, who first appeared in the short story "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover" (Tabloid Dreams, 1997), has been hovering over the U.S. (and watching our TV programs) for some 30 years, collecting the words, memories and yearnings of a few chosen people in a great machine on board his spaceship. Although he is the only remaining representative of his species, he is not alone; keeping him company are his curvaceous human wife, Edna Bradshaw, and their cat, Eddie. With the Wonders of Modern Technology at his disposal (Butler uses capricious capitalization throughout the narrative, to convey Mr. Spaceman's voice and delivery), Desi "interviews" some of the 12 gamblers, bringing forth their voices via the "memory machine" in a series of dramatic monologues that showcase Butler's talent for capturing vernacular and also his gift for parable. Each voice bears witness to a culture-defining event of the 20th century, from the first airplane flight in 1903 to the Branch Davidian debacle at Waco. But before he must make himself known to the world (and in so doing, reveal the "great and fundamental truth of the cosmos"), Edna prepares an unforgettable Alabama-style Last Supper for her spaceman lover and his 12 guests. Through Desi's alien eyes, Pulitzer Prize-winning Butler makes poignant observations about the power (and inadequacies) of language, the logic of dreams and the universal hope for redemption. He balances the playfulness of alien lore with the weight of religion, marrying the comic and the tragic with mastery. In Butler's view, our stories all have certain inevitable endings. This novel raises fin de siecle literature to new heights and turns inevitability on its head. (Jan.)
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