A beautifully written first novel about the ugliness of war—in Vietnam and anywhere else.
It’s 1970, and circumstances surrounding the life of 14-year-old Mong, Buffalo Boy, are harrowing, a consequence of the lethal attention emanating from Cu Chi, the main base of the 25th Infantry Division. Whether from the air (saturation bombing) or on the ground (napalm attacks), there has been destruction enough to cost Mong his father; in fact, no one in his village has escaped grievous loss. And yet, Mong, astride his buffalo Great Joy, feels empowered, transcending a reality composed of “scarred earth, of green rice fields burned, of trees and huts burned, ravaged.” Moreover, Mong has managed to fall in love—with Thien, also 14, whose breasts and hips fill his imagination with poetry. In the 25th Division, there’s another boy, only slightly older, Antonio Lucio Conchola, who calls himself Geronimo, a talismanic name from which he derives a sense of invulnerability. Geronimo has poetry in him, too, but war and killing have made him unnervingly strange, a condition that alienates him from his comrades. In that half-mad state, he has an almost otherworldly encounter with a tiger, perceiving the great beast as Blake did—burning bright. As a result, he decides that his only sensible course is to resign from the war, permanently. He wanders away from his platoon, eventually to be taken prisoner by Mongo. It’s an odd captivity, noticeably deficient in malice or enmity. It is as if, across the cultural and racial divide, the boys have somehow achieved an iota of affinity.
An anti-war novel certainly, but very much its own kind. Pervasively melancholy, folkloric in approach, it’s sustained by prose that is often lyrical, though never self-conscious.