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Last Words
Last Words

Severance by Robert Olen Butler: Chronicle Books, 2006, 263 pages, $22.95

Each story in Robert Olen Butler's Severance is 240 words long—back to that soon.

Basically, the book is a gathering of decapitation fables, dramatic monologues by people, animals and phantasms who've literally lost their heads to tigers, guillotines, railroad trains, saints, sons, even cuckolded husbands. The first is spoken by a 40,000-year-old man beheaded by a saber-tooth tiger, the last by Butler himself, guillotined in Saigon by elevator doors, as he leans out to hear voices down the hall.

Big fun, this, though the effect on readers of these poetically wrought tales—the language is dense—will vary enormously. But there's something for most tastes. At the chilling end is the testimony of the snake-coiffed Medusa: "I love my living hair, these serpents whisper when men come close." You want funny? There's a self-satisfied dragon recalling his last moments before St. George takes him out or the Alabama chicken beheaded for dinner whose vision of a Heavenly Hen occurs as it imagines crossing the road.

About the 240 word thing. Two epigraphs precede the stories. One is from a Dr. Dassy D'Estaing, writing in 1883: "After careful study and due deliberation, it is my opinion the head remains conscious for one minute and a half after decapitation." The other notes that in high emotion, humans can speak up to 160 words a minute. You do the math.

—Roger Martin


  The House on Boulevard St.










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