by Ed McClanahan

Whos Shot the Water Buffalo? Ken Babbs
Photo by Brian Lanker

Once upon a time, a lowly freshman comp instructor—namely me—at what I like to call Backwater State College in Backwater, Oregon wrote a novella which generated a tiny little pop of notoriety du jour, and somehow caught the attention of a very nice man named Rust Hills, then the longtime fiction editor of Esquire magazine, who wanted to publish it.  That fell through, and I spent the next twenty years or so trying to turn the novella into a novel. When the novel, now titled The Natural Man, was finally (and successfully) published in 1983, Rust sent me a note: "I love this novel," he said. "I think I’ve always loved it." I thought it was a great line, and I resolved to steal it at the soonest opportunity.

That opportunity took yet another thirty years to get here; it finally materialized last spring (2011), in the form of a request from an editor at Overlook Press, who asked me for a blurb for Ken Babbs’s Who Shot the Water Buffalo? Here’s my blurb:

"At last, after almost fifty years in the hopper, the most famous unpublished novel in America is in print.  Who Shot the Water Buffalo? is a splendid story of comradeship in a time and place of constant peril, but it’s Babbs’s irrepressible exuberance and vast, affectionate good humor that make the story go. I love this novel. I think I’ve always loved it."

My romance with Babbs’s novel began when the water buffalo was just a calf; I’m lucky I didn’t get indicted for illicit congress with an underage beast of burden. Here’s the backstory on that:

In the early 1960s, when I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, we local fledgling literary whiz-bangs—me, Bob Stone, Ken Kesey, Vic Lovell, Larry McMurtry, and assorted others—used to get together from time to time to read our deathless prose aloud, often at the Keseys’ house on Perry Lane, just off the Stanford campus.  One time, while we were sitting around the big dinner table in Ken and Faye’s house—there was always a big dinner table at any house Ken and Faye lived in— Ken read us a long, wildly descriptive letter from this pal of his by the name of Babbs (I thought he was a girl at first), who was flying helicopters in some faraway place called Vietnam, where there was a nice little war just getting under way.

As it happened, this Babbs and I, without either of us ever having had the slightest inkling that the other even existed, had already experienced a couple of near misses in our early career trajectories. I graduated from Miami University in Ohio in the spring of 1955, Babbs transferred to Miami that fall and graduated in ’58; we both took creative writing classes from a revered teacher, Prof. Walter Havighurst, who generously encouraged each of us along the way.  After my graduation, I took a shot at grad school at Stanford (in creative writing, of course), bombed out, slunk back home and weaseled my way to the lamest MA the University of Kentucky English Department ever let slip through its fingers, and landed out west at Backwater State College, teaching freshman comp.

Babbs, meanwhile, had been sixth man on the Miami Redskins Mid-American Conference championship basketball teams of 1957 and ’58—the ’58 team, led by NBA great-to-be Wayne Embry, is still the only unbeaten team in Mid-American Conference  history—and then touched down briefly at Stanford in a creative writing class where he became friends with another Ken by the surname of  Kesey, before taking off again as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

In 1962, I escaped Backwater State, and a life sentence at hard labor in the Augean stables of freshman composition, by means of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing to, of all places, Stanford!

Which brought me to the Keseys’ dining room table on Perry Lane, and my introduction—my virtual introduction—to Ken Babbs. We wouldn’t meet in person till 1964, when Babbs checked out of the Marines and came to California, reunited with his old friend Kesey, and hopped on the bus to Never-Neverland; but by then our trails had already criss-crossed more times than I could count, like the peripatetic tracks those little Family Circus kids leave around the neighborhood.

That letter was just great: madcap, high-energy prose describing a band of adventurous flyboys off on a lark, rattling good comedy with rueful, darkly ironic undertones. It was the first piece of writing that brought the reality of that distant conflict home to me. I had just read an exciting new novel called Catch-22, about World War II, and Babbs’s letter seemed almost like a latter-day sequel to it, an incipient, embryonic Catch-23.  We were all knocked out by the letter, and I’m pretty sure that when we talked about it afterwards, I actually equated Babbs’s writing, right out loud, to the Joseph Heller masterpiece.

The long-delayed, much-anticipated arrival of Who Shot the Water Buffalo? affirms that, just as I’ve always suspected, I really do have superhuman prescience. Babbs’s first letter is embedded, along with two or three others Kesey read to us over the next few months, in this triumphant novel, which possesses all the virtues enumerated above, plus others too numerous to mention.

I love this novel, and I love Ken Babbs. I think I’ve always loved him.

Copyright © 2005 - 2012 Ed McClanahan. All rights reserved.