Ken Babbs, one of the lead Merry Pranksters and a major figure of the psychedelic counter-culture phenomenon, read from his recently published novel, “Who Shot the Water Buffalo?” at 14 Street Coffee House in Astoria Saturday. He followed this with a book-signing at Godfathers’s Books Sunday.
“If you like to read books, you’ll like this book,” laughed Babbs, whose delivery was one part manic preacher and three parts stand-up comedian.
Babbs’s novel, which grew from his experiences as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, is a kinetic and unrelenting adventure laced with the horrors of warfare and the morbid humor required to cope with it. If “A Confederacy of Dunces” was set in a Southeast Asian war zone and written in breathlessly free-form prose, it would read rather like Babbs’s creation.
“I like a book that moves ahead, that doesn’t backtrack, one that keeps going all the time,” Babbs said. “I don’t like books that have psychological ramifications on why people do things. I’m always like, ‘Get on with it! Get back to the plot!’”
The tonal shifts between black comedy and grim reality more truthfully convey Babbs’s experience in Vietnam than a somber antiwar novel would have done, he said.
“One of the weird things about Vietnam is that it was a psychedelic experience without psychedelics,” Babbs said. “One minute you’d be raising hell in a bar, or having fun at an R&R in Tokyo, and the next you’d be out there with your heart in your throat, driving into a zone with bullets flying at you.”
Babbs didn’t set out to write a “message book” or a cautionary tale like other novels in the genre, but simply the kind of story that he enjoys reading.
“This is strictly an adventure book. What these men in a foreign country go through could’ve happened in any war. It could’ve been the Peloponnesian War, could’ve been World War I, could’ve been ‘Star Wars,’” Babbs said. “It’s the adventures that count. Vietnam is just the setting.”
How it all began
The genesis of “Water Buffalo” was a 40-year affair with a 38-year hiatus between the first and final drafts. Babbs began writing it as a Marine lieutenant stationed in the Mekong Delta in 1962. The following year, Babbs sent a first draft to his agent Sterling Lord. The next year, he and Ken Kesey and the rest of the Pranksters drove the bus illustriously christened “Further” to New York City, where Babbs met with Lord.
Although Lord offered suggestion, Babbs was no longer interested in completing the novel, which continued to sit, dormant, as he and Kesey took to filmmaking – “Intrepid Traveller and His Merry Band of Pranksters Look for a Kool Place #1” sprung from this era.
At one point, Babbs lost the entire “Water Buffalo” manuscript while moving. Fortunately, an old squadron buddy had requested a copy in the late 60s, and Babbs had sold the copy to him for $50. The friend returned the manuscript in the mid 70s.
His work on “Water Buffalo” continued to fall by the wayside until three years ago.
“I said to myself, ‘At my age, if I’m going to finish the things I’ve started, I’d better get on it,’” the 75-year-old Babbs recalled.
By then, Babbs knew exactly how to write it. He and Kesey, who died in 2001, had collaborated on a handful of projects over the years, culminating in the novel “The Last Go Round,” published in 1994. Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion,” had managed to impart to Babbs just about everything he had learned about the craft of fiction.
“It helped to have Kesey in my arsenal,” Babbs said.
His visit to Astoria marked the end of his statewide book tour. He will soon be hitting the Midwest and Eastern United States.
“I’m the oldest rookie in the big leagues of publishing,” Babbs said. “But I’m not satisfied with that; I’m going for rookie-of-the-year!”
Babbs has another book in the pipeline, “Cronies,” about his adventures with Kesey and the rest of the Pranksters. Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson have written on this theme, but, remaining faithful to his Prankster origins, Babbs’s book will be anything but a literal-minded memoir.
“It’s going to be a burlesque, which is a legitimate literary form defined as ‘historical occurrence embellished with inventions and exaggerations,’” Babbs said. “It’ll also let me do my ‘word-jazz’ thing again.”
Merry Prankster gets serious about sharing his stories