cover image Severance


Robert Olen Butler, Author . Chronicle $22.95 (263p) ISBN 978-

Lively writing and a catchy conceit make this collection from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain a thought-provoking, if morbid, read. Sixty-two entries, each in the voice of a beheaded historical, mythical, animal or modern figure, make up the collection. Each is exactly 240 words, Butler's estimate of the number of words that could be spoken by a decapitated head before oxygen runs out. Among the post-mortem monologues Butler imagines are John the Baptist, Medusa, Cicero, a chicken, Nicole Brown Simpson, Maximilien Robespierre, Valeria Messalina and himself, "decapitated on the job" in 2008. Though clever in arrangement (Butler convincingly constructs the mind of a dragon, then puts his killer, St. George, on the next page) and complex in its considerations (religious faith is an ongoing theme, from the apostle Matthew's recollection of conversion to a Yemeni executioner's discovery that "the mercy of God seeks sinful love before righteous hatred"), the collection's darting attentions and fractured narratives may frustrate readers. Several entries take a light tone, but what lingers is an unsettling sense of the absurdity—and prevalence—of violence. (Sept.)