Robert Olen Butler’s History Lesson: A SMALL HOTEL

by Patricia Henley

butlerMany years ago when I had completed my first year of teaching fiction-writing, I had a drink with Leonard Robinson, former editor at Esquire, on his lovely front porch in Missoula, Montana. We got to talking about teaching. Leonard told me a very simple way to present the idea of tension to students. He said, “Imagine there’s a guy in an elevator at the top of a very tall building. The elevator breaks down and suddenly he’s plunged downward. There are at least two possible outcomes. And you might be rooting for one or the other.” This notion is at the heart of the story in Robert Olen Butler’s new novel, A Small Hotel.It is a textbook example of such tension — a real page-turner.

But it’s so much more than that.

Michael and Kelly Hays, the central characters, have been married for twenty-four years. They are divorcing. Present time in the novel is short, but Butler lovingly carries us into the past, and we are privy to the intensity of their first attraction and decision to marry. He is an excellent chronicler of the small domestic moments that create and destroy love. His dissection of the conversations and omissions of their breakup is painful to read.

The novel is set primarily in New Orleans, a verdant, decadent, lively city. Butler knows it well and writes about it in a way that steers clear of caricature. I wanted to be there.

Blogsters who will remain unnamed have taken Butler to task for writing about divorce when he has recently been through a public divorce.  One admitted she had not even read the book. Those conversations are better suited to the cafe than the internet. I imagine Butler is old-school and it’s in his bones to morph the psychology of his own life into fiction.

My take-away (a lesson never alluded to in the book): After 24 years, it’s not easy to start a new history with a new lover. You may always be haunted by the glorious and perplexing moments of longtime marriage.

A Small Hotel
Robert Olen Butler
Grove Press – August 6, 2011
256 pages / $24.00