The latest word

Fair Warning

by Robert Olen Butler (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001)

Robert Olen Butler has won just about every award a fiction writer can hope for: a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Richard and Linda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, just to name a few.

So it was with great anticipation that I began the author’s latest effort, Fair Warning, the story of 40-year-old Amy Dickerson, the top-notch auctioneer of a small New York auction house.

Amy is smart, sexy, self-assured and single — the quintessential heroine for any modern romance novel. Of course, as in Robert James Waller’s (ever notice how these guys all have three names?) Bridges of Madison County, what we have here is not a woman author writing in the voice of a female protagonist, but a man writing as a woman — which is, in this case, to the book’s detriment. Simply put, Amy sounds and thinks like a woman created by a man, especially in her sexual references, few of which I could quote here without censure.

Kirkus Reviews calls Amy the “almost perfect heroine.” But perfect heroines have become cliches, and you’d think a writer of Mr. Butler’s talent would avoid such cliches like, well, the plague. I’m not suggesting restrictions on writers writing in voices of the opposite gender — some do it very well (Wally Lamb, for example, in his recent work She’s Come Undone). But an author is always at risk of sounding less than true when attempting such a feat, and such is the case with Fair Warning.

But if that were the book’s only weakness, I could be more forgiving: It’s not. For one thing, not much happens on Amy’s journey toward true love. She has one brief affair with an unlikely client, a bashful man six months divorced who’s selling his late mother’s Victorian furnishings. In a scene where she’s alone in her apartment after her first meeting with Trevor Martin, Amy fantasizes, “I crossed to the bed and I lifted his Versace shirt with soft tip collar and I let it fall over my head and down, the silk shimmering against me, and suddenly I felt as I’d climbed inside Trevor’s skin. Can you trust to know a man from a pair of dark eyes? From Chinese food and a child’s game played by an adult after a lifetime of quiet pain inflicted by a mother? From the touch of a hand? Inside the draping of silk my body had its own kind of logic. These details are the man, my body reasoned, as surely as the buttons and the stitching and the weave of cloth are this two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar shirt. I raised my paddle and I bid on this man.”

The shirt, by the way, is not Trevor’s, but that of a former lover — kept, judging by the number of references throughout the book to brand names, because it is a Versace. The timid Trevor takes a while to warm up to Amy’s ardor, even as she suffers silently in wanting him: “How long had it been since I’d made love? Some months. Too many months. One of the great, largely unacknowledged jokes Nature plays on women — at least this woman — is to increase one’s desire for sex while decreasing one’s tolerance of boring men.”

The relationship is consummated in an elevator, after which she realizes the guy’s not the right one for her, and ignores all his further advances.

But Amy’s life does not lack for interesting men to accessorize her interesting career. Enter Alain Bouchard, a wealthy Parisian come to America to buy the auction house Amy works for. Naturally, we are treated to almost instant magnetism, and the reader is led to believe that Alain will fill the love void in Amy’s life. There’s a lot of courting and romancing going on, even as the back-story — Amy’s widowed mother back in Texas is seeking her daughter’s help in auctioning off Amy’s father’s holdings — is woven in. (Here we mostly get the cliched angst one would expect, about a loving father who cheats openly on mom, et al.)

The Texas setting unfolds in obvious opposition to New York — now we see Amy as a down-home type at heart who’s made it to the big city wrapped in only, well, a Versace shirt.

Once the sale’s completed, the wealthy Alain offers Amy a nice salary increase and promotion to keep her working for the auction house. In due time, he invites her to Paris: What better place to seal a business proposal — and lips — than in that romantic city?

This story should sizzle — instead, it flops, mostly because the author relies heavily on impressing us with sophistication and swell places. There’s little that’s new or very noteworthy going on with the characters — Amy isn’t even particularly likable (she gloats when she’s able to get much more for items than they’re worth, she’s overly awed by fancy cars and fine caviar).

One of the book’s achievements is to give readers a keen insight into how the wealthy live — what clothes they buy, what cars they drive, what restaurants they favor, and which objects d’art they’re most fond of picking up at auctions. Parts of the book read like a Neiman Marcus catalogue: Late in the story, Amy insightfully points out, “The auctioneer always tries to find one item in a sale that stands out, an item to become emblematic of the excitement and worth of the whole event.” I kept trying to find the equivalent entity in this book. The title comes from the auctioneer’s alert that the final bid is about to be accepted. Here’s another fair warning: There are plenty of love stories that do a much better job of finding the key emotion.

Robert Olen Butler teaches creative writing at Florida State University and is the husband of author Elizabeth Dewberry. He appears at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Monday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. For more information, call 254-6734.

A Sacrament of Lies

****************************************************************** Elizabeth Dewberry (Putnam/Blue Hen Books, 2001)

The author of two previous novels, Break the Heart of Me and Many Things Have Happened Since He Died, Elizabeth Dewberry has crafted an unusual and highly readable mystery in her latest novel.

Mysteries tend to be genre fiction, and genre fiction is generally plot-driven and not too worried about character development. But in A Sacrament of Lies, what we get is a heady dose of the protagonist, Grayson Guillery, who isn’t sure if her father killed her mother — or if, like her mother, she may be going mad and could end up killing herself.

Grayson’s father is the governor of Louisiana (and, yes, there are plenty of references to Huey Long and wacky Louisiana politics) who’s up for re-election, and possibly a run at the White House. A man whose power reaches far certainly seems capable of covering up a murder, if murder it was. Grayson finds a self-made videotape of her mother shortly before her death, in which she hints that her husband or others might be trying to kill her. One of the possible others is Grayson’s own fiance, the right-hand man of her father’s political empire. Compellingly, the protagonist’s innermost circle is composed of those she least trusts.

And the mystery gets thicker: Grayson’s mother had a lover, a physician and close friend of her father’s, someone who could have easily gotten her the lethal dose of pills that allegedly killed her. Then, too, Grayson’s father ends up marrying his dead wife’s sister within six months of funeral — making just about everyone a suspect.

Dewberry creates a taut mystery only occasionally slowed down by too much interior monologue. The ending is a trifle convoluted, but at least it’s not what we expect. An innovative plot and distinctive voice make this a recommended read.

Elizabeth Dewberry is Writer in Residence at Florida State University and the wife of author Robert Olen Butler. She appears at Malaprop’s Bookstore on Thursday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m.

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