The author photo of Ken Babbs on the dust jacket of his first solo novel, Who Shot the Water Buffalo?, depicts a jovial, burly, silver-maned fellow wearing an insignia-laden Armed Forces leather jacket. He looks like anybody’s unassuming Foxy Grandpa, ready for a night out with his bowling league or a BBQ at the AmVets. But of course, Babbs is operating undercover. One of the original Merry Pranksters, a true Child of the Sixties, legatee of the Ken Kesey canon, Babbs is more Holy Goof than AARP resident of Florida-as-God’s-Waiting-Room. Now he’s chosen to return to his fabled past–specifically, his Vietnam War service in the early 1960s–in order to deliver a novel based on his firsthand experiences of that grim and absurd conflict, with an emphasis on the absurdity.
Literature about the Western experience in Vietnam extends back at least as far as 1955, when Graham Greene’s The Quiet American recounted the French travails in that country. America’s involvement commencing circa 1963 under JFK was rapidly followed by fictional accounts such as Daniel Ford’s 1967 novel, Incident at Muc Wa. By the 1970s the floodgates were open, and any bibliography of the genre now numbers scores if not hundreds of books.
Given this vast corpus of Vietnam novels, can Babbs offer anything fresh? You can count cadence on it!
First off, we have a truly comic novel here, a shaggy buffalo of a tale, incident-rich but generally shapeless, more M*A*S*H than Dog Soldiers. Tom Huckelbee, smallish Texas rogue, meets Mike Cochran, Midwest bruiser, in 1960 at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where they are both in training to be chopper pilots. They bond amidst stateside hijinks, and by 1962 are in Vietnam. Because the war has not yet gone sour, and Americans are only “advisers,” their life is a fairly easy one:
“Fly our asses off all day, accept a bullet or two in payment and put out a few rounds of our own… Then return to the tent; flaps dangling, ropes singing, floors buckling, beds damp and mildewed, shoes covered with mold, metal oxydizing into caustic red surfaces; our home where we gather for drinks every evening and bull roar.”
That prose sample is indicative of Babbs’ light, hotdogging, rollicking, almost stream-of-consciousness touch. Narrated by Huckelbee, the story affects a devil-may-care flyboy attitude which glosses over but does not deny the mortal bad karma of the enterprise, nascent as it may be. Nicknamed Huck, our narrator of course summons up associations with Twain’s tale: two feckless, reckless boy-men adrift in the Big Muddy.
Babbs evokes the mindset and quotidian details of the period with a deft hand, using pre-Beatles music sparingly to create a soundtrack that’s de rigueur for Vietnam novels. He has a quick yet forceful and engaging way with characterization. Here’s our first look at the camp’s medico: “Doc Eversham smiles behind his pipe. Sharp Ivy Leaguer, he’s amused by the constant variety of interesting ailments that crop up in these awkward field conditions. He brushes his unmilitarily long hair across the top of his head. His white smock is spotless and wrinkle-free.” Bingo, the Doc’s nailed for the purposes of our tale.
A nearly womenless book–save, natch, for the native B-girls–this light-hearted yet still somehow melancholy novel conjures up the baffling, deracinating start of a poignant era, and how it affected the civilians as well as the soldiers.
“You, who write to us, can you understand, does this make sense? Your letters are like messages from another planet. Does someone sitting in an office crank them out to perpetuate an American myth? A central morale building where families and towns and friends are invented and their activities chronicled?… Hello there. I send my answer into the void. Hello there. I, too, am an American. I am over here but still one of you.”
Separate but united, divided in opinion but of one heart: that portrait from Babbs sums up the USA’s bloody, noisy era of hawk and dove as neatly as any more weighty tome.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.