Though Arriaga has impressed with his provocative screenplays, the first novel published in the U.S. by the Mexican writer falls flat on the page.
Many of the themes here of blood, betrayal, loyalty and man’s animal instincts will be familiar to fans of 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, both scripted by Arriaga. Even so, this novel follows a strong set-up with minimal payoff. At the core of the plot is a romantic triangle. Most of what’s significant reveals itself in the first few pages. Narrator Manuel feels guilt toward his best friend, Gregorio, who has recently been released from a mental institution after showing some severely self-destructive tendencies. Gregorio appears willing to reconcile with Manuel, who had slept with (and remains very much in love with) Gregorio’s girlfriend, Tania. Now in their early 20s, all three had been close friends at least since their early teens, until Tania chose Gregorio as her boyfriend and Manuel as her secret lover. Manuel has also slept with Gregorio’s sister and has an uneasy relationship with his younger brother. On page three, Gregorio commits suicide, leaving the characters with the rest of the novel to resolve their various issues of guilt, love and lust. Nothing ever really gets resolved, though Gregorio and his hallucination, the titular “Night Buffalo,” remain omnipresent in the mind of Manuel, in particular. As for Tania, it’s hard to know exactly what she’s thinking, whether her love and allegiance lie with the living or the dead. The combination of existential navel-gazing and south-of-the-border bloodlust (like a Mexican mélange of Albert Camus and Cormac McCarthy) wears thin over a couple hundred pages with minimal narrative momentum. The resolution offers too little, too late.
A flashback-heavy movie concerning the obsessed mind of Manuel and his memories of Gregorio and Tania might make for a more compelling experience than this curiously inert novel.