Robert Olen Butler doesn't go into foreign territory unless he knows the language. In 1993, he won a Pulitzer Prize for "A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain," a collection of stories about Vietnamese exiles in America. His fluency in Vietnamese enabled him to capture the struggles of these displaced people in poignant monologues.
In 2000, he went into outer space with a winsome novel about an alien studying Earth. Nothing interested "Mr. Spaceman" more than words, "these vanishing, fragile, powerful things that plague the dwellers in this world, things that rush from them and around them and into them and through them and out again, constantly."
Now, Butler has gone somewhere even more remote: the high-end auction world of New York City, a business "built on the three 'd's': debt, divorce, and death." Once again, his language is right on the money in this alternately witty and moving meditation on value and values.
The firm of Nichols & Gray profits by satisfying the desires of wealthy collectors of art, furniture, and bric-a-brac. Their star auctioneer, Amy Dickerson (a comically perfect name), is a 40-year-old Texan with a bloodhound's sensitivity to "shopping pheromones."
Ever since she auctioned off her baby sister to a neighbor kid, she's felt "exhilarated when she can sell something to somebody." But it's not just about the money; it's the thrill of snapping together a match between buyer and object, a skill that requires extraordinary knowledge of her buyers and the objects she's selling.
The novel opens during one of several auctions re-created by Butler in all their glamorous excitement and accelerating rhythm. "I know about desire," she tells us. "It's my job to instill it - blind, irrational desire - in whole crowds of people. But doctors get sick. Lawyers go to jail. Evangelists get caught with prostitutes." What follows is the story of a mature, successful woman struggling to understand what she wants and who wants her. What makes it such a pleasure is the way Butler plays with the usual stereotypes of romance but ultimately rejects them in favor of something much more satisfying and surprising.
Amy finds herself pursued by a Frenchman who's also negotiating to buy the auction house. In her line of work, it's difficult to resist the temptation to value everything in dollar terms. Even courtship becomes a kind of bidding war, and that challenge becomes an ominous strain behind the pounding gavel. As her professional and romantic suitor, M. Alain Bouchard believes we define ourselves by the things we collect, and no matter how charming his technique, Amy can't shake the suspicion that she's becoming another of his defining possessions. On the other hand, she's alarmed that she might have grown into such a responsible and careful shopper that she can no longer be swept away by amour.
At a charity fundraiser, she finds herself in the weird position of auctioning off herself. It's all in fun until it's not, and then Amy is forced to bid on herself in a way that's as much an act of preservation as isolation.
Butler's sensitivity comes across especially in the filial details of this woman's life. During her titillating affair, she must deal with two very different models of romance, now collapsing. In a burst of independence, her mother is determined to sell off all her late husband's possessions. And she insists that Amy serve as the auctioneer, a role that forces her to deal with her resentment toward the man who launched her career but withheld the affection she craved.
Meanwhile, her sister's suburban marriage - "Missy's Mighty Armor of Family" - is failing, dealing a card of vindication that Amy can barely resist playing. Butler knows just how to catch the repressed exasperation between siblings who love each other and yet find each other endlessly annoying.
These family crises provide Amy with sale points, you might say, that help her assess her own value. In a conclusion that rises slowly from creepy to celebratory, she realizes that we define ourselves not by our possessions, but by our choices. Though she's bidding against some deep-pocketed challengers, she walks away with a rare kind of happy existentialism.
How innovative to create in a novel a smart, erotic, emotional woman taking control of her life without any ironic sigh or depressed acceptance of her independence. Amy doesn't become a wife or a mother - or even a man or a nun. Alain isn't "the one," but that's okay. She's got options, and she knows how to keep the chambers of commerce and her heart beating separately. Consider that fair warning, indeed.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.
By Robert Olen Butler
Atlantic Monthly Press
225 pp., $24