The death of a little girl. The Vietnam War. Drug abuse and sexual misconduct. A boy coming of age.
Matt Briggs packs together enough “big themes” in Shoot the Buffalo for several novels. Yet he does so with such attention to particulars that they only stand out as “themes” in retrospect. While reading, you’re aware only of the candid generosity of the family portrait.
Shoot the Buffalo is about the Bohm family—a counter-culture group of five growing marijuana outside a small town in the foothills of the Cascades who uneasily welcome a sixth member into their household. This new family member is the husband’s brother Oliver, just back from serving in Vietnam.
Narrated by Aldous, the eldest sibling in the family, the book traces the impact Oliver has on the Bohm household, especially as it relates to the death—early in the novel—of his younger sister. Though a sophisticated and structurally complex book with much to recommend it, two core strengths stood out as particularly notable. The first of these is the sense of place.
The book has a second narrative thread that follows Aldous through his first weeks in the Army, but much of the book takes place in a rather remote Pacific Northwest wilderness. Briggs beautifully captures the sights, sounds, textures and smells of this wilderness, using language evocative without being showy. Having spent most of my adult life in that part of the world, these pages made me acutely nostalgic for a land as fecund as it is mysterious.
The other core strength of the novel is Briggs’s ability to conjure the voice and perspective of an intelligent, watchful child, with all his limitations intact. Aldous Bohm is a brilliant portrait of youthful consciousness in its attempt to negotiate the complex emotions of early adulthood. To watch him grapple especially with a generous measure of misplaced guilt around which much of the book revolves, is nothing short of heartbreaking.
The book is of course haunted by the impact of war. But because it remains true to the perspective of a child, and because in the Bohm family—as in many families home to Vietnam Veterans, my own included—the war is not discussed, the narrator gropes around for the haunting’s true source. It’s both everywhere and nowhere, and the reader, along with young Aldous, is forced to confront the impossibility of solving problems that aren’t even allowed to be named.
Shoot the Buffalo, which won a 2006 American Book Award, was originally published by Clear Cut Press—a house that’s since gone out of business, it seems. However, it’s recently been rereleased by The Publication Studio. Briggs has information on the various ways you can read it on his website.