Strange bedfellows

Can an alien and an earthling live together in peace? That may sound more like a lead-in to Jerry Springer -- or the plot to Starman, Earth Girls Are Easy, and a thousand other sci-fi yarns -- but, no, it's actually the premise of Mr. Spaceman, the new novel by Robert Olen Butler. The Pulitzer Prize winner has departed from his Vietnam War-influenced stories and followed his search to find The Human Condition out of Saigon and into space. There, he finds Desi, the last member of an alien race, who has dropped anchor just above earth and shacked up with a beautician named Edna, whom he abducted from a Wal-Mart parking lot in Alabama. OK, so it is a little Springer-esque.

Like Butler, Desi wants to discover what drives mankind. He's spent 30 years reading the memories of the people he has abducted and, of course, watching their television. Desi doesn't want to take over the world. He's a nice alien -- no anal probes, telepathic surgery, or chip implants here. Instead, he's politically correct, almost Clinton-esque: He only wants to feel their pain so he can live among them and be accepted. But these earth creatures are just so damned confusing with their emotions, decisions, and contradictions.

With only one day remaining until he is to enter the atmosphere and introduce himself to the earthlings, Desi snatches a busload of tourists headed for a casino in Louisiana. Judging from their reactions, Desi's arrival is more likely to inspire a welcoming committee from the local Chamber of Commerce armed with a fruit basket and a warm casserole than a dispatch of the National Guard, a SWAT team, or those guys in protective suits from E.T. Humans just love this guy, er, alien. Maybe it's because he's practically human himself -- well, except for his gray skin and six extra fingers. He learned to speak English by watching television, and he loves breasts, especially those belonging to Edna, who lives as his wife and serves meatballs to the humans he brings aboard the ship. But for all his alien technology and knowledge of the universe, he just wants to teach humans about other planets and live among them and their mini-malls and Choctaw Indian bingo. Being able to live in space apparently doesn't make aliens any easier to understand than humans.

Shannon Sutlief

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Shannon Sutlief