Tabloid Dreams

Katharine Whittemore reviews "Tabloid Dreams" by Henry Holt.

Published November 22, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Worrisome, the cover design of "Tabloid Dreams," which shows a big glass eyeball gleaming against a lurid purplish backdrop. Too high concept, you think, too gimmicky. The allusion is to "Woman Uses Glass Eye to Spy on Philadelphia Husband," one of 12 tabloid headlines Butler uses as inspiration for his new, uneven, story collection. "I go over to where [the eye] is lying on the rug and I look down," the spying woman narrates. "And I look up. At the same time." We understand the eye is a metaphor for clarity; if you could truly see your husband cheating, you'd leave, not equivocate. Especially after his lover sticks said eye in her navel "like a belly dancer's jewel." Talk about the last straw.

Unfortunately, too many of these tales read like fiction workshop exercises -- clever, but more attention-getting than anything else. "Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire," and "Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover," in particular, deploy a countrified, banal, near-patronizing tone. Like this cartoonish detail from "Every Man She Kisses Dies": "I go into the drawer in the nightstand and I pull out a foil pack and I tear it open and it's wax lips, big red wax lips, and I put them on ... "

When Butler leaves the archness behind, he can write movingly, as his Pulitzer-prize winning story collection, "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain," attests. This is the case with the first and last tales in this book, which exhibit a fine and wistful tone. They're told from the perspective of two passengers on the Titanic and succeed, perhaps, because Butler writes in a 1912-ish style (the year of the disaster), thus avoiding the prose pitfalls of his more aggressively "contemporary" fiction.

To wit: "All this floating about seems much too casual to me," states the starched British civil servant and sinking victim, whose essence dissolved in the floe-chocked North Atlantic, churned through various rivers, only to end up in a waterbed. "I expected something more rigorous in the afterlife," he continues. "A propitiary formality. A sensible accounting. Order. But there has been no sign, as yet, of that King of Kings." The young suffragette he saves in the first story reflects on this salvation in story two. "I told him I did not know why I should live and he said 'Because I ask you to.'"

Lovely words. Dreamy words. Not tabloid-like at all -- which is why these few stories work, and the others, sadly, just don't.

By Katharine Whittemore

Katharine Whittemore is the editor of American Movie Classics magazine.

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