Buffalo Afternoon is my current read, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s take on the Vietnam War. I picked this up last year, after returning from The National Mall, a novel in mind. Buffalo Afternoon was going to be research material, but every time I looked at it in my bookshelf, something said wait.
In the meantime, other books were read, a few written. The novel I had in mind to write was pushed back some, not enough time this year to research it properly. But last week I needed a new lunchtime read, and finally Schaeffer’s book went with me to the table, the cream cheese bagel waiting. Now I’m enmeshed, no way out. Not only will it assist in what I think I am going to write next (for NaNoWriMo), but the poetry of the prose won’t let me go.
My all time fave books, fiction and non, have that poetic element, and I think Buffalo Afternoon is going to join them. It’s about the Vietnam War, but also Pete Bravado, an Italian American whose house has two distinct atmospheres, cozy daytimes with his mother, grandmother and aunt, then dark evenings with his father, a cold, ignorant man who hates books. Schaeffer’s lyrical writing deepens a rift made apparent in the second chapter, Pete after the war, noting the gulf between father and son. As Pete’s childhood unwinds, I’m transported to New York in the fifties, also pre-war Italy. I’ve already spent some time in a Vietnamese village; this is the sort of novel that easily flits from here to there, all due to the language which tells many tales within one sentence.
I didn’t grow up on poetry, but my fave novelist Richard Brautigan is also a poet, and my favorite book of poetry reads like a novel; Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes recounts his courtship, marriage, and separation from fellow poet Sylvia Plath, ending with her suicide. Plath’s poems caught my eye when I was a teen, but it was years later in England when Birthday Letters hit me, and now back in California I’ve found Buffalo Afternoon, also The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s meta-fictional account of his days in Vietnam. It’s the poetry within these books that I am drawn to, time and again, also in Haywire, by Brooke Hayward. I can’t adequately explain the narratives other than to compare them to poems.
In pondering my NaNo idea, I’ve been stuck at how to write it. A sprawling tale covering several decades, do I just start at the beginning, or will flashbacks be necessary? Buffalo Afternoon sets up the premise in the first chapter, “Two Voices”, placing the action in a Vietnamese village, then back in New York. Then the past opens the tale, so many ways to tell a story. That’s part of the plotting, not just what happens to who when, but in what order the writer spins out that information. And then the how; how does the prose relay many stories, several characters? When I read Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar or Haywire or The Things They Carried, I am inspired directly and vicariously. I itch to convey what percolates in my gray matter; I also consider the wider scope of great literary beauty shoehorned into an older, Pocket-sized paperback with a small font. How much poetry sits in those five hundred sixty-two pages, more than I can contemplate this early in the morning. Not all my faves are that lengthy; In Watermelon Sugar is a slip, one hundred sixty-six pages, and the font isn’t squished. Leisurely laid out over those pages is another form of poems, chapter by chapter noting tigers that speak while eating the locals, but those cats aren’t very good at arithmetic. But like Schaeffer, Brautigan was an expert at challenging a reader while at the same time weaving a hypnotic magic, keeping me from setting down those books.
Yesterday when I finished lunch, I completed chapter six. Seems I eat about half a bagel per chapter, along with carrots and dip. If the chapter hadn’t been done, I would have sat at my kitchen table until it was. Perhaps it seems odd that I stretch such a delicious book over the course of however many days it takes to eat a bagel and read; it’s savoring that novel, as I’ve done with other fantastic lunchtime tales. Tomas O’Crohan’s The Islandman, Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home; some books are meant to be ingested slowly, with great care. There is nothing like the first time a book is read, and while at times I devour a story, occasionally I want to dawdle, allowing the incredible beauty into my brain and heart sentence by sentence. I’m learning while enjoying, a little schooling alongside the entertainment. And when the words are poetry in motion, I can’t help but take a deep breath, letting it out so slowly, wondering how the writer managed that marvel, that miracle, that utter gift in front of my eyes. But they did, it’s there in black and white, for as long as that book holds together
Those words, as unreal as they might seem, are forever. As a reader, and a writer, I am ever so grateful.