Who Shot the Water Buffalo?
By Ken Babbs
First Published: 2011
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Military, Aviation
Who Shot the Water Buffalo? is a first novel from Ken Babbs who was one of the original Mery Pranksters along with his best friend, Ken Kesey. This is a fictional first person account of a Marine helicopter pilot’s experiences in Vietnam. It pulls you right into the chaos and absurdities of early US involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Babbs highlights the day to day trials the Marine pilots face and their methods of attempting to cope. He does an excellent job of creating a very realistic portrayal of Vietnam based on his own firsthand experience as a helicopter pilot in the conflict. He succeeds in highlighting the absurdities of war but is not quite able to sustain the initial strong momentum of the story through to the end.
Who Shot the Water Buffalo? begins with the narrator of the story, Huckelbee meeting Lt. Cochran in flight training where they quickly form a friendship that carries them through flight training and then deepens to an inseparable bond as they are deployed to Vietnam in the same unit. Hucklebee looks up to the charismatic Cochran who constantly challenges authority. They both rely on each other for support during the innumerable trials they face as they fight to survive amidst the vagaries of war. Not only do they find themselves occasionally fighting for their lives during missions, they find themselves in a constant struggle to survive the inanities of their superiors and the harsh realities of living in makeshift quarters in a tropical jungle.
Each chapter opens with a short present tense stream of consciousness monologue from the narrator who is babbling under the influence of high powered pain killers in a hospital. This is followed by the main story where the narrator recounts events leading up to the obviously ill-fated final mission. The narrator tends to ramble at times and some of the writing is a little disjointed and hard to follow but this serves to reinforce the chaotic atmosphere of the Vietnam conflict.
Babb’s writing style emphasizes the absurd and includes a wealth of comedy. Some of the shenanigans perpetrated by Lt. Cochran are hysterically funny which provides a great contrast to other scenes that are intense and sobering. Babbs doesn’t hesitate to expose the more unsavory side of a pilot’s life in Vietnam including R&R searches for companionship and perhaps a bit too much information on bowel problems.
The combination of humor and the absurd with some engaging characters and realistic dialog makes for an enjoyable and promising read during the first half of the novel. However, there doesn’t seem to be very many new developments as the novel continues. Eventually, the scenes start to all seem kind of the same. When the end finally comes, there isn’t much in the way of surprises and even the mini character epilogues seem slightly disappointing.
Who Shot the Water Buffalo? provides some great humor and realistic depictions of a helicopter pilot’s life in the Vietnam conflict. It makes it all too clear how Vietnam drove many solders to the use of excess alcohol and drugs. While I don’t recommend Who Shot the Water Buffalo? for everyone, I recommend this novel for military aviation buffs or anyone who is interested in getting an authentic first person account of the Vietnam conflict.