Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

All you need is love, even in war

Buffalo Boy and Geronimo A Novel James Janko Curbstone Press: 270 pp., $15 paper

January 22, 2006|Gerald Nicosia | Gerald Nicosia is the author of "Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement."

IT is no secret by now that the Vietnam generation has produced the largest crop of writers of any group of American warriors, but the really interesting thing is that even at this late date, its veterans still continue to publish their first books. James Janko, 56, an Army medic who served with the 25th Infantry Division in Tay Ninh province and in the Cambodian invasion of 1970, makes his literary debut with the novel "Buffalo Boy and Geronimo." It is a debut that seems to portend more fine work to come.

Nothing in the publisher's biography of Janko suggests he is a poet, but his book is what used to be called, admiringly, a "poet's novel." Readers who seek a complex plot won't find it here, but the lives of the two antiheroes, U.S. Army medic Antonio Lucio "Geronimo" Conchola and 14-year-old Viet Cong villager Nguyen Luu Hai, are rendered in such rich textures that one sometimes feels Virginia Woolf is writing them. Even more remarkably, the land of Vietnam and the animals, from whose viewpoint the story is sometimes told, come alive. Narrating from such unusual perspectives could be regarded as a gimmick, but it works beautifully here because poetry, mythology and folk tales are so central to Vietnamese life, as is the belief in the spirits of animals, the land and the dead -- all of which Janko uses in his narration.

The story of "Buffalo Boy and Geronimo" can be told in a few sentences. Hai and Conchola are lost and struggling to make sense of a world being torn apart, not just by the pain and brutality of war but also by the inhumanity and injustice of their respective societies. Conchola grew up on the poor side of San Jose, never having known his father, who was killed in the Korean War. He was raised by a Catholic mother whose answer to every problem was to pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe. In school, his lust turned toward pretty white girls who never gave him the time of day. So he developed an avid imaginary life, as "a Mexican-American Casanova, 'El Rey del Mundo.' " He also imagines himself a half-blood Indian warrior called Geronimo, who, once drafted into the Army, would surely end up "the most decorated soldier of the Viet Nam War." The only problem with this scenario is that "wounds scared him," and in his heart, Conchola really doesn't want to harm any living thing.

Hai too lost his father to war. He was a Viet Cong soldier blown up by a U.S. gunship; there was only a mangled body for his son to bury, a significant loss in a society based on ancestor worship. Although Hai longs to avenge his father's death and pay back the Americans who appear to love nothing but killing his people and destroying their villages, he also finds the local Viet Cong cadre stupid, manipulative, arbitrarily cruel and as out of touch with natural life rhythms as the Americans. What the boy loves is his water buffalo, Great Joy -- his best friend, whom the Americans also end up killing -- and the girl with the widest hips in his village, Le Minh Thien, whose lovely body and face obsess him and whom he wants to marry with all the desperate passion and adoration of a pubescent adolescent anywhere.

Both Hai and Conchola, following their individual notions of altruism, end up inadvertently killing someone they care about: In Hai's case it's the old elephant man who loves large animals as much as he; in Conchola's, it's his platoon mate Billie Jasper, the only soldier who understands why Geronimo loves a Vietnamese tiger wounded by U.S. bombs more than any other being on Earth except, perhaps, his absent mama. Conchola goes AWOL just after his unit returns from Cambodia; he is captured by the dispossessed Vietnamese from Hai's now-obliterated village; and the two young men, their roles reversed, continue the destructive dance of clashing cultures to the novel's surprisingly upbeat conclusion.

Were that all there was to "Buffalo Boy and Geronimo," it would not seem much different than a hundred other novels that have belabored the folly of America's violent, swaggering intrusion into cultures around the world whose languages it does not speak and whose minds it will never in a million years fathom. But Janko, clearly, is using that frame on which to hang a much deeper tale.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|