Who Shot The Water Buffalo

  • Ken Babbs
  • The Overlook Press
  • 313 pp.

Antics of two Marine helicopter pilots fill this Vietnam novel written by a Marine pilot who served in Vietnam.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

Think Catch-22 crossed with M*A*S*H set in Vietnam in 1962, starring Huckelbee, a 5’9” wiry Texan, and Cochran, a 6’2” hairy bruiser from Ohio, and you’ve got an approximation of Who Shot the Water Buffalo? The episodic novel follows the two unlikely Marine lieutenants and helicopter pilots for the better part of two years (1960-62) through their training and deployment to Vietnam. Together they experience bizarre events more entertaining than plausible, starting in Pensacola with a drunken party led by a retired admiral and his wife who ignore a hurricane that destroys the bayside house in which they are reveling. And that’s just the beginning.

Huckelbee and Cochran are assigned to HMM-188, a helicopter squadron, populated with characters no less freaky than themselves. In the summer of 1962 (before the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964 and the commitment of U.S. troops to combat), the squadron is posted to Soc Trang, in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, to ferry South Vietnamese soldiers and supplies. Once in Vietnam, the squadron never escapes the monsoons. As the rains are ending in the delta, the unit is transferred to a base near Da Nang just in time for the beginning of the northern monsoons. Flying the zoomies is torturous, and socked-in landing pads cause cancellations. Along the way we witness grotesque beer-bashes, whore-hunting forays and one hair-raising double crackup and ingenious escape from the enemy.

The eponymous water buffalo is a reference to Marine jargon for a 500-gallon tanker-trailer, intended, in this case, to provide water only for the squadron’s senior officers but regularly poached by hoi polloi. In a minor episode, Cochran believes someone has shot holes in the water supply; the actual victim of the shooting was a real water buffalo.

Babbs relates the adventures of the pilots in a series of stand-alone chapters, each a separate short story that starts with a disjointed monologue by Huckelbee, addressed to a doctor who is treating his shoulder wound. Only in the action-packed last chapter do we find out how that wound was inflicted.

Ken Babbs, born in 1939, went through the NROTC program at Stanford, and after graduation was trained as a Marine helicopter pilot and sent to Vietnam. After discharge, Babbs and his friend Ken Kesey ― author of the 1962 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ― “fell into the crack between the beats [the Beat Generation of the 1950s] and the psychedelic generation [of the 1960s],” as Babbs once put it. They formed the Merry Pranksters and staged Happenings. In the process, Babbs forged connections with Neal Cassidy, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg and the Grateful Dead, among many others. Tom Wolfe chronicled the Pranksters’ shenanigans in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Babbs has dabbled in writing from time to time and co-authored The Last Go Round with Kesey in 1994, but this is his first independent novel.

Babbs narrates Huck and Cochran’s escapades in the present tense, from Huck’s point of view. As a consequence, immediacy is the message, but the language is idiosyncratic and not always easy to read. “Nemmine” shows up for “never mind,” “cept’n” for “except” and “Sarnt” for “Sergeant.” The dialect, especially in the first half of the book, though always arresting, is more reminiscent of acidheads and 1960s intellectuals than of jarheads  —  no Marines I knew ever talked like this. As the story of HMM-188 develops and some of Huck’s buddies die, the tone darkens and the vernacular recedes. The final chapter’s violent climax is told in riveting language devoid of anachronisms.

Water Buffalo works as a novel, and some of the humor is irresistible. The shattering ending sobers the reader, in part because it is unexpected. But I suspect the book will please aging hippies more than Marines. On the heels of last year’s Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes and in light of the classic Jarhead by Anthony Swofford (2003), both outstanding in their documentation of Marine culture, Babbs’s book feels inauthentic. The effect is sharpened by occasional misspellings of Vietnamese words, personal names, and place names. Babbs seems unaware of the significance of Vietnamese names, all meaningful and all poetic. Witness Xuan Mai, “tomorrow is spring,” and Bach Tuyet, “white snow.” Babbs gives one Vietnamese character the name Trung Nhut, unlikely because it means either “most central” or “Sino-Japanese,” depending on the tone.

In sum, I can recommend Who Shot the Water Buffalo as a Vietnam war novel, but only after the work of Tim O’Brien, Robert Olen Butler and especially Karl Marlantes.

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Tom Glenn, a speaker of Vietnamese, spent many years in Vietnam during the war. Col. Al Gray, later Commandant of the Marine Corps, managed Tom’s evacuation under enemy fire when Saigon fell in 1975.

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