First contact - coming to a planet near you

MR. SPACEMAN By Robert Olen Butler Atlantic Monthly Press

Robert Olen Butler does not seem like a wacky man. He is a college professor. He writes about Vietnam. He won a Pulitzer Prize. He probably pays his taxes and mows the lawn dutifully.

Perhaps only alien intervention can explain this tender novel about an extraterrestrial named Desi who comes to Earth with important news for humanity. Imagine the NBC comedy "Third Rock From the Sun" with a philosophical linguist as the lead.

"Mr. Spaceman" is a mixture of sweet absurdity, social criticism, and theological speculation. The novel opens in the final hours of Desi's study of Earth. He's been given instructions to reveal himself at midnight at the end of the millennium. (Unlike us, extraterrestrials have figured out that the millennium ends next Dec. 31.)

Desi's patient voice is informed by a deep sense of compassion and a hundred years of careful attention to American advertising. "I am still learning," he admits humbly. "My task is to submerge myself in this planet Earth."

His last object of interest is a bus load of gamblers "crossing from the Great State of Texas to the Sportman's Paradise of Louisiana." Nothing escapes him. Before beaming them aboard his spaceship, he notices "the hum of their tires on their Tax Dollars at Work, and the rice fields sliding invisibly past and smelling like Fabric-Safe Morning Rain."

Of course, the dozen abductees are alarmed at first, even though Desi is wearing a smart-looking zoot suit. One terrified man wants to know if Desi is "a Reagan appointee." But they're quickly soothed by the Southern hospitality of his buxom wife, Edna Bradshaw, a middle-aged hairdresser from Bovary, La. Nothing breaks the ice like bright name tags and tasty hors d'oeuvres.

"Hi," he says. "My name is Desi. I am a friendly guy. There is a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight. I Would Like to Teach the World to Sing. I Would Like to Buy the World a Coke."

"But tonight we only have Presbyterian Punch," his wife interrupts.

There's nothing like a spaceman's perspective to illuminate the comic aspects of our lives that have grown dim with familiarity.

Though many things about Earth fascinate Desi - Kroger's, cats, sausage balls - nothing is more impressive to him than words, "the mystery of 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."

During the past century, Desi has recorded thousands of conversations with earthlings in his struggle to understand our struggles. "I am moved to Reach Out and Touch Someone," he says wistfully.

The most moving portions of the book are these monologues, haunting stories of loneliness or delight, romance or sexual abuse, success or racial violence. Desi demonstrates an infectious desire to know and appreciate all these ordinary people. In the sometimes heartbreaking clarity of their stories, they seem more remarkable than a man from outer space.

Religious allusions fly around this novel like Jedis around the Deathstar. At the final dinner with his 12 guests, he finds it almost impossible to avoid the messianic role. "I have an Achy Breaky Heart," he admits. One desperate young woman insists he must be more than he claims, but he shrugs off her questions by saying, "I am that I am." When he finally catches the biblical references, he's even more terrified by the challenge that awaits him.

"There are many things about this world that are too wonderful for me to comprehend," Desi admits. I had the same feeling reading this novel. Fortunately, we are not alone.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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