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BOOK REVIEW : Exploring a Friendship Forged Years Ago in the Heat of War : BUFFALO <i> by Sidney Blair</i> ; Viking $18.95, 202 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A war novel needn’t be written in the heat of battle or even recollected in tranquility years afterward. Often the subtlest and most powerful are created by those who never fought but who observed how the war radically altered those who did. These are the books that explode the cliches and reinvent the form.

“Buffalo” is this kind of war novel, 10,000 miles and 20 years away from Vietnam. We don’t hear barrages of artillery, only the reverberations of ordnance long silent. There are no deaths and no horrors, just the certain knowledge that Ray McCreary heard the guns, felt the anguish and saw the unspeakable.

We know he was a Marine and that he has recovered from physical wounds, but we never discover in what capacity he served or for how long. Those details are immaterial, because war is the great leveler, leaving none of its participants untouched or entirely intact.

“Buffalo” is set in the present, in the mild countryside of Virginia, where Ray is working as a carpenter. We’re never told if that was always his goal, but it seems unlikely.

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Carpentry seems to be something he slid into, because, in some obscure way, Vietnam played havoc with his ambitions. Still, for the first time in two decades, he’s reasonably happy; earning decent wages, living with a woman he loves in a remodeled schoolhouse, actually thinking of marrying Vivian and perhaps having a child. Vivian has two of her own, but they live with her former husband.

They visit, but visiting children are guests. A family is something else entirely. Loving, patient and beautiful at 39, Vivian is also a veteran; the reason this relationship seems to have a future.

The calm is shattered by the appearance of Ray’s old Vietnam buddy Bullet, who hasn’t yet found a niche in the world.

Bullet barges into Ray and Vivian’s precarious peace and disturbs it by enlisting Ray for a madcap sailboat voyage to the Virgin Islands. “He reminds Ray of Kerouac’s description of Neal Cassady,” hyperkinetic, always on the road and unable to understand or accept the fact that Ray might not still be as restless and eager to share his adventures.

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Bullet has a wife and a family, but the connection is tenuous, and he’s footloose and persuasive. Ray agrees to crew on the trip to the Virgin Islands, but once the mission is accomplished, he returns to Vivian and his job, leaving Bullet to revel in the delights of the tropics.

Bullet doesn’t stay put. He resurfaces a few months later, having sold the boat and begun to think about striking out for Australia.

“He’s not a bad person,” Ray whispers to Vivian that night. “Just a little crazy is all.” Were it not for Vietnam, these two men might never have become friends, but bonds forged in war are unlike any other, stronger and more durable, and Ray is still vulnerable.

At Bullet’s insistence, Vivian and the two men drive to Washington to visit the Vietnam memorial, an excursion Ray has sedulously avoided.

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“And when he runs his fingers over the names of his dead friends, he loves the pain he feels and he hates it. . . . And there is a terrible moment when, leaning against the memorial, his eyes closed, Ray rests his fingers where the granite is smooth and clean, and imagines he feels, in that blank space, Bullet’s name deeply inscribed, and below that, slightly less deep, his own.”

Before he can quite make the final commitment to marriage and fatherhood, there is one more trip Ray must take, alone, a journey to New England to visit friends from the 1970s and to check on one special person, the girl he loved but didn’t marry.

Priscilla, stricken with cancer but surviving and coping, is now the wife of a banker. In a life-affirming gesture, she offers herself to Ray, but he resists. Emotionally exhausting, the journey is a qualified success, “and he knows now it is time to go home. There is nothing more for them to say or do.” Priscilla “has James, music, children--all their comfort. And he has, as much as anyone can have anyone, Vivian.”

Before he and Vivian can resume their interrupted life, Bullet reappears, this time requiring Ray’s assistance with a herd of buffalo he had arranged to buy; a scheme more eccentric than any of the others; senseless but irresistible.

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A buffalo hunt is an offer Ray can’t refuse--the final favor he can do for Bullet before he settles for a Bullet-proof life; the glorious goodby that will cancel all debts. Although nothing goes quite according to plan, eventually, tragicomically, Ray succeeds in liberating himself from his past, finally accepting the fact that Bullet must emerge at his own pace--sometime, someplace or never.

Vivian and their new baby have alleviated Ray’s lingering pain. Bullet isn’t so lucky. Alive, whole and apparently healthy, the Bullets of the world are casualties whose names never appear on any list, whose disabling wounds are invisible to everyone except their comrades in arms.

Next: Carolyn See reviews “Thicker Than Water” by Kathryn Harrison.


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