At first glance, Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River seems like an application for a National Book Award. Its protagonist, Robert, a 70-year-old history professor, lives in comfortable ennui with his semiotician wife, Darla: tenure, sabbaticals, staring through separate study windows in their sprawling Florida home. It’s a life of carefully brewed coffee and
uninterrupted research. All is well, save for the growing distance in the marriage, man and wife siloed into their respective Kindle-glows at night. But a chance meeting with Bob — a homeless man Robert assumes to be a veteran — reveals the reason for the disconnect: Robert’s unacknowledged guilt about his war in Vietnam.
This is compounded when the health of his father — a second world war veteran — fails, prompting Robert to reconsider their relationship and contact his estranged brother, Jimmy, who represents the flipside of the war in Vietnam: draft-dodging, hippiedom and escape to a craftsman’s life and open marriage in Canada.