BOOK REVIEW / They shoot hoarse whisperers, don't they?: They whisper - Robert Olen Butler: Secker & Warburg, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IN American fiction of the past 30 years men seem to have got over their fear of the vagina dentata. A woman's mouth, teeth and all, has become the orifice of choice for American males, the blow job the primary sex act.

Fellatio figures prominently in the life of Ira Holloway, the narrator and chief protagonist of They Whisper. Holloway, a testosterone heavy 35-year-old PR executive in a dodgy marriage, regards fellatio as an uncomplicated two-way act of love, even when he is paying Vietnamese bar girls and prostitutes to do it to him.

You might expect a Pulitzer Prize-winning author to bring an awareness of the underlying symbolism to his account of an act in which a submissive female pleasures a dominant man. But Butler records Holloway's attitude without apparent irony. Indeed, the most dispiriting thing about They Whisper is how obtuse Butler is about heterosexual love, whilst imagining he knows it all.

In stream of consciousness prose, Holloway weaves his memories of women he has known into an account of his marriage to Fiona, a religious nut two candles short of a Mass. Usually these memories are sexual, and mostly they involve the Asian women he knew when he was an interpreter for the American army during the Vietnam War.

He talks about his exploitation of Vietnamese women in terms of 'all the many women I made love to'. He is aware of their sexual servitude - he overhears another soldier muttering 'Little darlin', little darlin' as he has sex with a prostitute, whilst she is muttering in Vietnamese, 'You pig, you pig, you monkey's ass' - but he doesn't see his own transactions with them in the same light.

But then, Holloway is quite a guy, seemingly catnip to the prostitutes. According to him: 'Just the speaking (in their own language) made the women I desired want to be with me, want to touch me in return.' All the bar girls, understandably, spit and wash their mouths out after they have fellated the American soldiers. Not Holloway's bar girl. That's the kind of guy he is. The kind of guy that prostitutes, according to his account, spend nights with free of charge.

Butler presents Holloway's narration in a way that leaves little doubt but that he approves of his character. He even has the women in the book collude in Holloway's self-glorification. Sections of the novel are written from their point of view. They all say how wonderful, how smart and wise Holloway is. When Holloway tells his future wife Fiona about a particularly grubby transaction with two Vietnamese prostitutes who used to come to him whilst he was on guard duty, she is furious not because of his exploitation of these women but because, jealously, she doesn't want to hear about his favourite blow job.

Holloway's wife may be religious, but he's the saint. He stays in his marriage for the sake of his son, with whom he is far-seeing, wise, sensitive and caring. He has sex every single night for years with this woman he doesn't find in the least desirable in order to protect his son. You wonder here if perhaps Butler will connect Holloway's marital experience with the sexual servitude of the prostitutes in Vietnam. But no, this is but further confirmation that Holloway is a helluva guy, especially where his cock is concerned. His wife insists on instant erections or she goes into towering rages. Holloway never fails to come up with the goods.

Butler is a deft writer. When he extracted some of Holloway's schoolboy yearnings from this novel for publication in Harpers magazine last year it made a poignant short story. But the book as a whole collapses under the weight of its own pretensions and Butler's preposterous viewpoint.

The most worrying thing is how autobiographical They Whisper is. Is this male fantasy or a male author bragging about how wonderful he thinks he is? Butler too was an interpreter in Vietnam. Butler too stayed in a dreadful marriage for the sake of his son. He told me last year: 'They Whisper has taken me 48 years of loving a lot of women and listening to them very closely to do.' After reading the book you can only wonder: he may have listened, but did he hear? He believes this book is 'very important'. It isn't. It's self-important. A sad study in narcissism.

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