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BOOK REVIEW: FICTION : Sexual Rhetoric Acting Like Art : THEY WHISPER by Robert Olen Butler ; Henry Holt, $22.50, 369 pages


They meet cute. Walking in Greenwich Village, Ira Holloway, the narrator of "They Whisper," encounters Fiona, a sunny young woman who rounds the corner, smiles at him and walks on. Immediately she's back to explain that the smile was not a come-on but provoked by a funny-looking old man she'd just passed.

In a moment she reappears; this time to make sure he's not feeling hurt. And so it goes: they spend a day at Coney Island, talk about art, share a bathtub in the kitchen of her railroad flat, get married, move to Long Island, have a son.

It is a modern hip idyll: smart, sweet, dripping with sex and so lyrically recounted as to uncomfortably resemble an expensive perfume ad. (Ira is in public relations, though we hear hardly anything about it.)

We know there is something wrong, partly because of the excessive sweetness and partly because of the insistently cut-in accounts of Ira's many other sexual encounters.

In fact Fiona's intensity turns from flower-drenched to sinister. There are references to her sexually abusive father. There is her story of the French suicide who plummeted past the hotel balcony where she was standing naked, glanced at her as he went by and--her weird point--appeared to find her ugly.

There is her screaming, furniture-throwing jealousy. After the birth of their son, there are her prolonged fits of hysteria whenever Ira takes more than 20 or 30 seconds to achieve an erection. Again, it makes her feel ugly. Finally there is her lapse into a maniacally deformed Catholic fanaticism with kinky erotic overtones.

Robert Olen Butler is the author of a collection of short stories, "A Sweet Scent From a Good Mountain," which won last year's Pulitzer Prize, and of six earlier novels, which Holt is republishing in paperback. The stories, set in Vietnam or telling of Vietnamese in America, were written with a magical intensity that, except once or twice, colored the writing without overwhelming it.

The writing in "They Whisper" shows no such restraint. It is a flood of rhetoric doing the work of art. Perhaps Butler's project was unfeasible to begin with. "They Whisper" is about more than the gruesome and ultimately fatal madness of an abused woman. It is about sexual passion in a wider sense and even though Fiona's disintegration provides the main thread, the story is, in fact, Ira's.

It is a catalogue of conquests, like Don Giovanni's; only in this case there is no Figaro to recite it and infuse it with irony. Indeed, one of the faults of the book is that, despite all the activity, there are virtually no outside reference points at all.

Of the women Ira involves himself with--several prostitutes in Vietnam, a high-born young Vietnamese woman, a high-school sexpot, the wife of an acquaintance, a Swiss fellow worker--only one or two seem to have any character or feelings independent of Ira's own feelings about his own orgasms.

Despite his many encounters, and the detail in which they are told, there is nothing titillating about "They Whisper." Its sex is solemn and exalted; as in D.H. Lawrence's books, it breathes meaning, though much more heavily and less distinctly.

It is all holiness and very little fun; Ira is a walking amatory miracle-worker. Women melt; even the prostitutes in Vietnam truly love him and unfailingly achieve orgasm. He is in as much awe of his own power as they are, and incapable of failing to respond to the desire of any woman he meets.

Only Fiona, with her sexual-religious hysteria, finally manages to turn him off. Conceivably Butler intends her to be a kind of judgment on the narrator's orgasmic mysticism but she is too overwrought and overwritten to let us be sure.

Every now and then there is a moment that recalls the gentle wit with which, in last year's story collection, Butler shaped and restrained his lyrical voice.

As a child, Ira takes a little girl to the X-ray machine in his uncle's shoe-store so that, their arms around each other, they can watch the bones of her feet wiggling. In high school he sneaks into the girls' locker room and hopefully inscribes flowery erotic tributes to himself on the wall of a lavatory stall.

Most of the time, though, "Whisper" is distended rapturousness. At the climactic--in both senses--ending, two sentences intertwine. One describes Fiona's watery death in orgasmic union with a hallucinated vision of Jesus. The other describes Ira's actual orgasm with his Swiss lover. Each sentence is at least 1,000 words long and each contains some 100 "and's." Has a copulative ever been displayed so lavishly and to so little effect?

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