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Book review: Who Shot the Water Buffalo?

Ken Babbs was a founding father of the Merry Pranksters, the group that along with Ken Kesey and Neil Cassady took their day-glow painted bus 'Further' across the country.

There was a concrete set of rules about pranks.

'The prank is a very delicate thing,' Babbs says. 'The prank had certain rules about it. One is you don't make a fool out of somebody just for the sake of doing it. And you don't hurt anybody and you don't just look for a scapegoat for something.'

This spring, when at 75 years old Babbs published 'Who Shot the Water Buffalo?' a book more than 40 years in the making, Babbs pulled off the greatest prank of his life. It is a prank on all of the people who never thought the novel would see the light of day. And it is a prank on the very institution of literature which screams out that once written a book will by God be published!

'It feels tremendous,' Babbs says. 'It's been so long since I first wrote it. It sat for all those years. Then I decided, 'Geez, oh man, I better finish some of these things I've started or I'm never going to get them done. The hour glass is running out.' So I went to work and got this done.'

'Water Buffalo' follows the exploits of Lt. Tom Huckelbee, 'leathery as any Texican come crawling out of the stage,' and Lt. Mike Cochran, 'loquacious son of an Ohio gangster'.

The book begins with the two officers training to become helicopter pilots. Too soon, though, they are thrown into the hell of the Vietnam War.

Books about war are as old as Homer's Iliad. 'Water Buffalo' looks into the face of all the war books that have come before it and smiles.

'Water Buffalo' is filled with all the humor of Joseph Heller's 'Catch 22." The laugh out loud spots serve as a reminder that a Merry Prankster is telling the story. Babbs is able to keep from crossing the line into the absurd which was Heller's undoing, though.

Babbs, who really was a Marine Corps captain and flew helicopters in Vietnam, by no means supports the undeclared war.

'Vietnam was stupid,' Babbs says.

The question of who shot the water buffalo is itself an analogy for a time and a place where what is real and what is not is in question.

While the book contains traces of that anti-war sentiment, 'Water Buffalo' mostly sticks to the story being told.

Larry McMurtry says of 'Water Buffalo': 'A lovely if chilling read, chilling because it brings home the reality of a tragic war.'

Scenes such as bloody VC bodies piled on top of a mound, each with a bullet in the back of the head as a staged photo op for the propaganda war, serve to prove McMurtry's point.

Babbs uses the beginning of each chapter to flex his writing muscles as Huckelbee talks to 'Doc' about his wounded shoulder in a flowing stream of conscious narrative.

Even more than the war, friendship is at the heart of the book. Images of Huckelbee and Cochran flying helicopters together, or going on wild R and R trips bring humanity into a country where humanity can be completely lost.

Babbs, who began the novel while in Vietnam in 1962, creates such a vivid picture of the war that the obvious question becomes: how much of it was autobiographical? Babbs says the book is total fiction, though.

'The place, Vietnam, the bases, Soc Tran (the hangar, mess hall, tents, heads, etc.), Da Nang (the Frog House, the O Club, the ready room etc.), the time (1962) were all real,' Babbs says. 'They formed the crucible where the plot, the drama, the tension, the action, the characters, all fictional, swirled and burbled the meat of the book.'

Babbs is the last member of the legendary Stanford writing class led by Wallace Stegner (which also included Kesey, McMurtry and Robert Stone), to publish a novel. It is inevitable then that Babbs will be compared with those writers.

But, it is unfair to compare any man to giants of literature with loyal readers -- many of whom have not reread the books in decades -- who have romanticized the feelings the books inspired in them.

Taking nothing away from the rest of Stegner's pupils, 'Who Shot the Water Buffalo?' stands on its own as a wonderful, thought provoking read and the greatest prank of a Merry Prankster's career.