BUFFALO AFTERNOON by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer


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Nothing in Schaeffer's previous work is preparation for this formidably long, fiercely ambitious novel (her eighth) about Vietnam and the anguish of one returned vet. Before protagonist Pete Bravado enlists in the army at 17, a lengthy introduction shows his Brooklyn roots: the emigration of his grandfather from Italy; the recognition that Pete, the fifth son, is especially gifted; the loss of familial harmony when Pete's insensitive father George forces Pete's early apprenticeship and the removal of his retarded brother Paul to an institution; and the growth of fear and auger in Pete, which leads him to petty crime and reform school. The next section (half the novel) is set in Vietnam; here Pete becomes Everyvet, the adventure-seeking rookie losing his innocence, seeing other men die, and forced, himself, to kill. Schaeffer does combat convincingly, not skimping on the horror. The crucial scene involves Li, a young Vietnamese peasant woman, whose lyrical account of village life (and her own innocence) being shattered by the war, has opened the novel. Li has met Pete in a Saigon cathouse, made her way to his unit, and gathered valuable intelligence for it; when she gives birth in the jungle, an ARVN soldier slaughters her baby, and Pete breaks his neck. He returns to Brooklyn with enough psychic baggage for a lifetime, seeking "daily life at its dailiest," without success. His marriage to Dolores, a "typical" product of the neighborhood, is overwhelmed by battlefield ghosts, while those closest to him die--first Paul, then his mother Angelina. The years whiz by as Pete shuttles between priest and therapists. Twenty years and two suicide attempts later, on the threshold of a second marriage, and "unfrightened" by a female Oriental therapist, Pete reaches his "buffalo afternoon"--a metaphor for tranquility after labor. In essence, a story about exorcism, about transcending the loss of innocence; this is the problem linking Pete and Li. Unhappily, Pete's drama is played out in a world more clinical than novelistic; some passages read like raw transcript of therapy sessions, while major characters (Li, Angelina) are dumped. Grim reading, then, not because of the subject matter, but because Schaeffer's relentless determinism closes the door to the surprises that enrich and invigorate good fiction.

ISBN: 394-57178-9
Publisher: Knopf
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