There’s no escape quite like what you can find in the pages of a good book. A good book makes everything around you melt away. A good book overtakes you and replaces the events of your life with those found in its pages, if only for a brief, intense time.
This is something Bobby Bunting knows full well. He’s a 35-year-old man trapped in a life so mundane and unhappy that seeking escape becomes his primary concern. He finds it in odd ways, including the kind of absorption in books that crosses the line from simple enjoyment to disturbing and unnatural levels of immersion.
You’ll find yourself sucked into Bunting’s story as you read Peter Straub’s novella The Buffalo Hunter. Not, one hopes, to the level that Bunting gets sucked into books like Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake, or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. But you will find yourself thoroughly engaged in this sad, disquieting story of a man desperately trying to remove himself from the world around him.
Bunting is a creature of habit. He spends his days entering data into a computer, an anonymous drone in a cubicle, engaging in the occasional conversation with a coworker, telling the man stories invented from whole cloth about his exotic girlfriend Veronica and their frequent trips to expensive restaurants and her home in Switzerland. Veronica is the cover story he uses with his parents to explain why he never makes the trip back home to Michigan anymore. Veronica is a lie, but it’s a lie that Bunting eventually comes to believe in.
Veronica is insulation against the real world, but surely Bunting isn’t the only man to invent a girlfriend out of thin air. He may be, however, the only man to find comfort in baby bottles, beginning with one he used as a child and branching out eventually to cases of them. What exactly he does with these I’ll leave to Straub to reveal, but it’s a childlike approach that is both comical and disturbing at the same time.
In telling Bunting’s tale, Straub employs a precise, almost fussy storytelling voice that perfectly encapsulates the mannered façade Bunting maintains. Only when Bunting falls into one of the stories he reads does Straub change his style, morphing into an almost dreamlike rhythm that mimics the stream-of-consciousness manner in which Bunting is living out his fantasies.
As the book progresses, it becomes hard to distinguish whether Bunting is falling more out of touch with the world around him, or is in fact accepting reality for the first time. Either way, it’s both disorienting and exhilarating for him – and for us readers. He’s picked a path, it seems, and for better or worse he’s determined to follow it through. The path leads to an ending that, rather than making sense of all that’s come before, further blurs the lines between what’s been real and what’s been in Bunting’s mind all along.
Straub’s credentials as a storyteller go without saying, and in The Buffalo Hunter he displays the deft skill and sure hand that have brought him years of acclaim. It’s an emotional and at times wrenching read, a book that, like those Bunting treasures, provide a few hours’ worth of escape but stay with you long after the final page is turned.
Order The Buffalo Hunter by Peter Straub from Cemetery Dance Publications.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.