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Review of Who Shot the Water Buffalo?

May 8, 2011

Who Shot the Water Buffalo?: A NovelWho Shot the Water Buffalo?: A Novel by Ken Babbs
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read several books about the Vietnam War. All of them were serious accounts of the screwed up military conflict that left the United States humbled. I loved Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, Larry Heinemann’s Black Virgin Mountain, and more recently Karl Marlantes‘ Matterhorn.
Not surprisingly, Merry Prankster Ken Babbs’ new book, Who Shot the Water Buffalo?, has an entirely different take on the war. WSTWB is what you would hope for from someone who was best friends with Ken Kesey and became famous for his LSD antics, the Further bus trip and Grateful Dead associations. Of course it’s irreverent, but it’s also smart, insightful and poignant. Of all the books I’ve read, none so expertly captures the absurdity of the Vietnam War as does WSTWB. And since Babbs served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in the early sixties, he’s writing what he knows. He wrote this novel while he served then shelved it for 45 years. It’s been reworked and refreshed and is his debut novel.
It chronicles two Marine Corps officers who meet in helicopter flight school and become best buddies. Lieutenant Tom Huckelbee, a “wiry” guy from Texas, and Lieutenant Mike Cochran, a “loquacious son of an Ohio gangster,” are training to fly helicopters because “helly chopters don’ carry no Fat Man” referring to the fact that they don’t carry A-bombs or any bombs at all. They soon find themselves in the middle of a hot, humid mud-fest in South Vietnam where VC are trying to kill them, dysentery is wreaking havoc with their bowels and the mind-blowing rules and regulations of the military are trying to break their spirit. The job of the pistol-packing pilots is to fly supply sorties to outposts which turns out to be as grueling as any hand-to-hand combat duty could be. Chopper duty means endless hours of flying into pea-soup fog through jungle mountains with snipers down below turning pedestrian supply runs into harrowing undertakings at times. It also means getting shot down and having your buddies die in front of you.
Even with all the drama, there is no shortage of irreverent and funny moments shared by Huckelbee, Cochran and the rest of their squadron. That’s especially true when they escape to Tokyo where getting drunk and laid is de rigueur. It’s “R and R. Rest and relaxation. Rehabilitation and Reclamation. Romping and Ratfucking. A necessity for hot-shot pilots burning themselves out on the steady diet of “Fly and drink and to hell with the Victor Charley” attitude we ‘Mericans so easily develop in the tropics.” They also pull off some pressure-relieving “M*A*S*H-like” base pranks.
Each chapter opens with free association dream-like prose directed at “doc” that channels Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Huckelbee chant-raps stream-of-consciousness revelations after he suffers a shoulder wound. “Some water, Doc…a nice cool drink…that’s the ticket…abolish all fever spots…empty the ice machine…raindrops falling on my head…sweet balm of rapture…fly me to the moon, Doc…I need a reprieve…Cochran is a maniac…we fly eleven hours on a massive troop lift, he never turns loose the controls…with the bit in his teeth, he’s a horse not a gorilla…we refuel at a dirt strip with big black gas bladders filling us up…choppers gulping gas, three at a time…rotors shut down but engines running…we’re full up…bird in front of us still refueling…Cochran curses, what’s the fucking holdup…engages rotors, twists on turns, pulls the collective up and lifts off.” The staccato rhythm of this free-flowing verse perfectly mimics the sounds of machine guns strafing the jungles below. It’s wonderful to read out loud.
Who Shot the Water Buffalo? is an important addition to the rest of the books that chronicle the Vietnam War and the sixties. Its influences are many ranging from the Beat Generation’s Jack Kerouac with the sex, drugs, politics and On the Road quality combined with the crazy Gonzo journalism style of Hunter S. Thompson. Who Shot the Water Buffalo? is both historical and nostalgic and is fresh and singular in its voice. Bravo Babbs!

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