Saturday, March 11, 2006

Growing Up Is Hard To Do

This review is a first for me. Not so much for the review itself, but how I found out about this book. Matt Briggs is a West Coast writer who happened to be passing though, reading his new work at the Writers Center in Bethesda, Md. I post up all of their events on my Monday Events posts, and Matt sent me a kind note of thanks. I probably wouldn't have discovered his novel Shoot the Buffalo otherwise, and I'm glad I did. This is one of those real gems of a book small presses put out all the time and not enough readers---including yours truly---discover. It probably won't be an Oprah pick. It probably won't be the comeback movie for Haley Joel Osment. But it's moving, it's powerful and it's well worth reading.

Here starts the review.

At age nine Aldous Bohm, his younger brother Jake and younger sister Adrian are packed up by their parents and moved to a house in the woods of Snoqualmie, Washington to create the ideal American family. The ideal family as filtered through the vision of the experimental 1970’s, that is. Working class, the parents flit from one odd job to another while making most of their real money by selling pot to residents of the town. Things become odder when Uncle Oliver, a man filled with equal amounts of wisdom and depression, returns from service in the Vietnam War and moves into their attic. Although a likable Oliver’s free love and pot smoke lifestyle bolster the already neglectful attitudes of the parents.

When the three adults leave the children alone in the woods one afternoon, Aldous panics. Instead of staying within the warm security of their cabin Aldous drags his siblings into the cold, rainy woods to search for their parents. The three pass out from exposure, and while Aldous and Jake survive their sister Adrian dies from hypothermia. This is but the start to the novel Shoot the Buffalo by Matt Briggs; the story that follows is the heart-wrenching aftermath of responsibility and recovery.

The parents take no responsibility for Adrian’s death, so Aldous takes the blame himself and searches for answers everywhere he can: at school, in the Boy Scouts, even at Church. Telling this heartbreaking narrative through the eyes of a child is ambitious, but author Briggs handles it delicately by displaying that unique balance between naiveté and wisdom all children possess.

Briggs’s view of nature seems approached with an eye and mind of someone who really knows it. The nature of these back woods of Washington is beautiful but wild, poetic but deadly and Briggs writes it as someone who loves nature but knows it well enough to be just a little bit afraid of it. His view of the working class in the logging town of Snoqualmie is equally mature; so often working class characters come off as either idealized heroes or doddering bumpkins. But Briggs creates real, believable characters full of flaws and strengths.

When Aldous reaches his eighteenth birthday he commits the ultimate rejection of his parents’ bohemian lifestyle: he enlists in the army. Aldous enters the rigors of boot camp and begins training as an army pharmacist. It’s there, on the superheated Army Base in Texas, that he enters into his first relationship with a woman and begins to deal with all the complex issues of his past. The chapters flip back and forth between Aldous the boy and Aldous the young man, with his childhood echoing his later life in a variety of complex and moving ways.

STB functions partly as a reflective critique of the bohemian counter-culture lifestyle, offering a cautionary example of living life in such a free-wheeling way. But this heart-breaking story ends on a sense of hope as we see Aldous making those first steps away from his upbringing and becoming his own person and willing to take on all the things his parents tried so desperately to avoid in those woods.


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