In order to fully express appreciation for objects, many people have an inherent need to attach a specific value to them. Appreciation, therefore, is often fundamentally based on the ability to quantify an object’s worth, and on the need to ultimately possess the item that one admires.
The nature of attributing value, collecting and the loss of uniqueness and interest that inevitably follows possession are cleverly pursued in Robert Olen Butler’s 10th novel, “Fair Warning.” Butler is a master of narrative, and his strengths are not only demonstrated in his adept character development, but also in the exceptionally diverse range of characters he chooses to give voice to.
In “Good Scent From a Strange Mountain,” for which Butler won the Pulitzer Prize, he chose to present short stories from the vantage points of 13 Vietnamese expatriates living in the United States. In “Fair Warning,” Butler weaves his account through another unlikely subject.
The protagonist, Amy Dickerson, is a smart and stylish auctioneer for a prominent New York auction house. She has a life-long obsession with objects and the way in which value is appropriated to them. Her fascination is one of manipulation and her talent exists in the way she alters her audience’s perception of the worth of tangible items, and the lifestyle of which they are indicative.
Butler opens the novel with Dickerson, at age seven, selling her three-year-old sister to the highest bidder among their neighborhood friends. Her excitement stems less from the prospect of being an only child, and more from the way that she can convince her first audience to want what she is offering. As Dickerson says, “her fate was sealed.”
This introductory vignette sets the tone for the rest of Dickerson’s life, and she finds her niche as a skillful marketer of goods to the elite jet set of New York.
Amy’s opinions of her customers are often less than flattering, and she portrays them as self-important and desperate to own and amass for the sake of perceived importance and social stature. Dickerson confidently prides herself on her ability to take advantage of their large pocketbooks and mercurial temperaments. This is not surprising considering the nature of Dickerson’s work assumes a condescending tone and style of manipulation. Butler’s accounts of Ms. Dickerson in action are especially well written and witty.
Of course, there is a great deal more to the novel than Amy’s profession. This sets the backdrop for the main theme, which is her internal conflict about the way that she realizes her tendency to evaluate people’s worth, both others and her own, in the same way she has been assessing the value of objects. Amy worries that she has played life in too calculated a manner, and that, at 40, it may be too late for her to change. Two different men enter, and the question hangs in the air over whether Amy will be able to accept love when it is in front of her, or scrutinize it to the point of devaluing it.
While Butler’s main character is refreshingly confident and humorous, her coldness is sometimes difficult to swallow, especially at the points in which she is supposed to be introspective about her own inequities. Amy seems to resolve very little of her internal battle, but Butler’s depictions of her decadent lifestyle and salty demeanor are so entertaining that the omission is forgivable.