The butler's tale

The butler's tale

Jefferson Chase delves into a Pulitzer prize winner's follow up work.
Jefferson Chase

08 September 2008

Publication: Issue 74

In my second installment of a series about under-appreciated second novels, I thought we’d have a stare into Robert Olen Butler’s Sun Dogs.First published in 1982, the book was dismissed as overly esoteric and meandering.More than a quarter-century on, it’s an interesting, slightly esoteric, extremely topical read — the plot revolves around drilling for oil in the pristine wilderness of Alaska.As the story opens, private investigator Wilson Hand is reeling from his ex-wife’s suicide and memories of being tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.To gain some perspective, he takes a case involving data stolen from a petroleum company operating near the Arctic Circle.His first act in what will prove a twisted journey is to get plastered in a bar with his pilot, Clyde Mazer.Wilson looked closely at Mazer. The man had been drinking for five hours. Straight bourbon, mostly. His eyes were bloodshot and slightly jaundiced but they were alert. “Can we get out of here tonight?” Wilson said.“That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Go on back and get your stuff...” Amazingly, the two men survive the ride.Once at the drilling station in the extreme North, Wilson becomes intoxicated by the stark, natural beauty of Alaska, and his trip becomes an existential quest.He completely forgets his investigation.Nonetheless, someone keeps trying to kill him — once by chucking him out of the base camp into sub-sub-zero exterior temperatures.He barely makes it back inside alive.Whiskey also turns out to be a great cure for Wilson’s chilling near-death experience.The attempts on his life turn out to be a misunderstanding, and Wilson begins a heated affair with a company secretary while searching for the meaning of life.That’s probably why critics originally found the novel too diffuse.But in fact, just as you begin to fear the author has lost the plot, Wilson’s personal narrative leads him back to the oil story-line – in the form of an interview with the head of exploratory drilling.He saw Artie’s face in the van, the wind pounding the walls, and he remembered Artie starting to talk intensely, getting technical. But a clear phrase tumbled through: tough to crack.Was Artie talking about oil then? Was he saying he couldn’t find any?In this US election year, the news has been full of high gas prices and whether or not to drill for oil in natural parks and off coastlines.In Robert Olen Butler’s Sun Dogs, these political issues are connected with existential questions such as whether the fulfillment of material needs can ever lead to happiness, or whether a life change is required.In retrospect, I think it was an insightful connection to make.

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