Tag Archives: Tobias Wolff

Shoot the Buffalo

Although I rarely read fiction these days, I do read a little, especially if it’s good.

Shoot the Buffalo, Matt Briggs latest novel, is my kind of fiction. A coming of age story set in the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, it features some of the saddest, yet most oddly compelling characters I’ve read in a long while.

I seek out coming of age stories. The best memoir is written to read like fiction, so all the coming of age stories I read actually count as research toward my own on-going memoir project. One of the inherent problems of writing this kind of story is that something big has to happen to your main character, but not so big as to prevent a minor from rising to the challenge and overcoming in a way that’s believable and (hopefully) compelling to read.

In American literature, this sort of story often presents itself as a Hero’s Quest, typically a redemptive story where the hero overcomes some great adversary. But it’s not always so cut and dry. In This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s well-known coming of age memoir, a no-account stepfather is young Wolff’s big challenge. In a stunning act of guile, Wolff manages to (literally) reinvent himself, escaping to a prep school in the Northeast. Wolff’s use of deceit to overcome his situation has always made the story stand out for me. There is nothing more poignant then a child trying to cope with grown up issues the best he can, especially if that child is saddled with lousy parents. For a boy in this situation, the most believable thing to do is make a poor choice.

Shoot the Buffalo deals with the guilt a boy feels after he leads his siblings into the woods in search of their parents and his little sister dies of exposure. What struck me was the clever way Briggs uses the story’s structure and setting to move the main character from childhood guilt and confusion to a believable resolution as a young man.

It’s fiction, but it feels real. It’s just a genuine story about a hard childhood.

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