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Jack Butler

Alfred A Knopf

US Trade hardcover

ISBN 0-679-44665-6

413 pages; $25.00

 Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 1998


Science Fiction, Horror, Mystery

Writing within a genre is harder than it looks. That's the obvious conclusion to be drawn from numerous novels written in genre by non-genre authors. Jack Butler is no neophyte to the horror genre. His 1989 novel, 'Nightshade' was an excellent combination of science fiction and horror telling the story of a vampire in the 21st century who is drawn into a colonial revolt on Mars. But most of the time, he's a "quality writer" and poet whose work has been published by literary magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. Unfortunately, his latest foray into science fiction tinged horror, 'Dreamer', fails to live up to the standard of his earlier work.

'Dreamer' begins with an intriguing premise: a woman working in dream research becomes the object of surveillance by a group within the CIA looking for the key to artificial intelligence -- dreams. But Butler takes his character in an all too familiar direction. She's described by one of the agents following her as a "stone fox". She's brilliant, beautiful and can't find a man. So, for the next 200 pages or so, we're treated to her romance with the "mysterious" John Shade. Their romance reads like a laundry list of yuppie obsessions, while the plot stays in first gear. We're treated to elaborate and extremely well written descriptions of food, homes, kitchen appliances and very expensive Sports Utility Vehicles.

The two agents dispatched to trail her are actually a breath of fresh air. Instead of the usual borderline psycho-killers who displace the angst of their tortured childhoods with overly-zealous devotion to their country (that's their boss), we get a couple of gay men having an interesting romance of their own. Unlike the main character, they are anything but the standard issue Dean Koontz rip-off. Since the main character isn't actually accomplishing much in the way of research, the watchers have plenty of time to chat and cocoon. It's pretty unusual.

There are some interesting thoughts about dreams and math and the part dreams play in our lives, and some pretty interesting dreams are described. But Butler does not tie the dreams particularly tightly with the plot of the novel, and the endings are telegraphed long in advance. Because the watchers are actually more interesting and sympathetic than the woman being watched, scenes that should crackle with tension are merely entertaining bits to move forward Butler's unorthodox romance. What little plot there is does not kick in until the last few pages, but by then, Butler has left behind any reader not in search of love lost and love regained.

Butler's prose throughout is of the highest quality, but that's not much help when most of the characters and most of the action are uninteresting. There is a certain large segment of horror readers who like Dean Koontz and his derivatives specifically for the romantic angles and lightweight suspense offered without hard-core terror. They will find 'Dreamer' an excellent novel. Others are recommended to try and find 'Nightshade', with its virtual reality and vampires that are so much more interesting.