SHOOT THE BUFFALO by Matt Briggs
This novel shares two features with Ken Kesey’s SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION. First, each title comes from an oldtime song. Second, both are meticulously written and fantastically detailed accounts of America’s Great Northwest in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Otherwise these books inhabit different planets of storytelling.
While Kesey’s novel glories in the romance of logging, Briggs’ narrative bears witness to the flatulence escaping the deflating ballon of the Sixties Counterculture that media darlings like Kesey himself helped to mold. Romance is fun, magnetic, dazzling and, well, romantic. The Stampers are the Bonanza family of 1950s Oregon.
The Bohms, the family in SHOOT THE BUFFALO, are existing in the dreary damp outlying areas of Snoqualmie, Washington, getting by as dysfunctional pot-worshiping back-to-the-land pontificators dragging three small children through the rain forest like only occasionally sighted hallucinations. This book talks about, in no uncertain terms and yet in carefully crafted non-judgemental language, parents so obsessed with their own personal freedom – the spiritual treasure they hijacked from the Sixties – that they leave the raising of the narrator’s two younger siblings to the supervision of the nine year old narrator.
The sister does not survive this “enlightened” neglect. The narrator blames himself and palps the scar of imagined sibling murder for the rest of his sensitive, intelligent life. He owns the same nonconformist makeup as his parents and his live-in Uncle Oliver. But he strives desperately to conform, seeking structure, feeling for at least a foundation, to his rainsoaked life in the crazy cabin. We watch little Mr. Bohm want to fit in. But feel with him the impossibility of denying the dark and wondrous urge NOT to be like anyone else, for the good reason that down the trail of conformism Aldous will never find anything like himself.
Read this book as an on-the-edge-of-your-chair mystery. Will our child narrator escape the dank fog of drug use and gotta-be-free lunacy that emprisons his latter-day hippie parents? Will he find the secret passage out of the directionlessness and neurotic newer-newest-idea of how to live life that mires his parents in their own narcissism?
Read this novel, and understand that freedom can be just another word for solipsism, egoism and, ultimately, child neglect. Read this moist telling, perfumed throughout with rain forest decay, to understand how Mom and Dad’s never-give-a-goddamn-inch with respect to one’s own selfish freedom can at once creatively challenge and deeply scar children, and thus the world, because children are the world we are losing, they gaining and all of us more or less thoughtfully or thoughtlessly picking our way through.