AMERICAN LITERATURE, THE novelist Wallace Stegner once observed, is about motion. The principal characters of our classics -- say, for example, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Moby-Dick and On the Road -- are always headed somewhere, never content to stay put. At the heart of those books is what the characters learn about life as they go along, for good or ill.
Robert Olen Butler's latest novel, Mr. Spaceman, does not rank among these literary landmarks. But it shares with them a sense of the velocity of Americans on the go, just a step ahead of the demons pursuing them.
The eponymous hero of Butler's tale is, yes, an alien who bears the unfortunate name Desi, taken from a too-rich diet of television reruns -- the curriculum of all too many fictional extraterrestrials. (A real alien would surely use television as evidence to prove why our planet's human inhabitants ought to be vaporized.) This dangerous source of education also serves as the annoying source of the brand names and ad slogans with which Butler seeds his narrative.
Desi, naturally, has come to study the ways of earthlings. The group he chooses to beam aboard his ship for examination represents an odd but still representative cross-section of American society, the passengers of a charter bus bound for a Louisiana casino on New Year's Eve 2000 -- after which date, purists insist, the millennium truly begins.
Desi has already familiarized himself with earthlings, at least of the trailer-park-dwelling variety. He has taken a human wife, a woman who prides herself on her physical assets and who, although apparently unacquainted with literature or culture, is blessed with native intelligence and common sense.
Edna Bradshaw, his wife, has taught Desi just enough to confuse him. For Desi is nothing if not literal-minded, and much of the book's humor comes from his puzzling over the meaning of American idiomatic expressions -- guessing, for instance, at the ingredients of such Southern dishes as Mississippi Mud and Presbyterian punch, and wondering why his subjects speak of mud in the eye and a punch in the nose. He is constantly lost in language, "drugged" and "unbalanced" by words and their ever-shifting meanings.
Desi can also read minds, a talent that affords Butler the chance to show off his ability to speak through many different voices.
Some of his characters' minds, we find, are not worth poking into. Others, however, have much going on inside them. Edna's stream-of-consciousness remembrance of her father's way of eating sausage -- a modern rejoinder to Proust's madeleine -- becomes a meditation on all things lost.
Another character, a woman in desperate search of a messiah in the aftermath of the horrible massacre of Branch Davidians at Waco, affords Butler the opportunity to talk, elusively but suggestively, about the quest for meaning in an apparently meaningless universe.
Throughout it all, Butler holds a sympathetic, gentle view of human fallibility, and he accords even the goofiest of his actors a healthy measure of self-respect and self-worth.
Nothing much happens in the course of Butler's story, told in 20 short chapters. There are no wacky misadventures of the sort that fill Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series of novels, whose protagonist Ford Prefect would not have been out of place in Mr. Spaceman. Still, Desi learns a thing or two about humans, at least of the American subspecies; his passengers take in an unaccustomed view of the landscape; Earth is spared thanks to this "friendly guy from a distant planet" and life goes on pretty much as usual.
Mr. Spaceman is an entertainment that covers a lot of ground -- and sky.