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Originally published Friday, October 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Shoot the Buffalo": A life in Northwest haunted by death of sister

"Shoot the Buffalo" is a small, perfect book about large, messy things. This first novel, by local author and 2003 winner of the Stranger Genius...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Shoot the Buffalo"
by Matt Briggs
Clear Cut Press, 515 pp., $14.95

"Shoot the Buffalo" is a small, perfect book about large, messy things. This first novel, by local author and 2003 winner of the Stranger Genius Award Matt Briggs, grapples with death, guilt, conformity, loyalty and betrayal. It takes on less abstract, though still intangible, topics such as that mythical inhabitant of Pacific Northwest forests, the Sasquatch.

"Dad began to dig the dam behind the house the summer I was nine ... " narrator Aldous Bohm states as the book opens. But this nostalgic past becomes more complex within that same sentence: "... the summer my sister Adrian died, the summer Uncle Oliver came to live in the attic." Laying out his larger themes without trickiness or pretension, Briggs pins them in place using vivid particularities.

Aldous attempts to protect his sister from the world's myriad treacheries, making her dump out the poisonous, bright red berries she piles in her skirt, rushing her home to safety through the darkening Western Washington woods, "sticky with spiderwebs strung out for the night." Despite his efforts, Adrian accidentally dies. The passages leading to her death are excruciatingly beautiful, sodden with the weight of inevitability, yet silvered with clearly evoked details. The tension Briggs draws between fate and free will forms a surface on which Aldous slides back and forth for the remaining 400 pages of the book, touching the past but unable to penetrate and change it.

Blaming himself for what has happened, Aldous seeks to conceal his guiltiness by acting "more normal than everyone else." He joins the Cub Scouts, then the Army, as "Shoot the Buffalo" alternates between his childhood and young adulthood.

The eternal outsider, Aldous makes straight-faced commentaries on his marijuana-farming father, philandering uncle, unfaithful mother and garishly tattooed brother with the air of a journalist reporting on a decade-long disaster. The growing objectivity made possible by time helps him to realize that a 9-year-old boy can't be held responsible for the loss of a sibling's life. Yet he's unable to get anyone else to shoulder his enormous burden — even his father, the dam-builder, a self-proclaimed force of nature.

Briggs' familiarity with the Pacific Northwest's seductive dangers and somber delights lends special depth to the sections that take place here, though Aldous' stint in Texas for Basic Training also has its rough charm. And it's through making the connections between these two seemingly disparate settings that the author proves himself equal to tackling the broad themes he confronts in this book, and also those needing much more delicate handling, the evanescent presences of genii locii: untamed beasts, wildmen and ghosts.

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