Book Review: 'The Buffalo Hunter' by Peter Straub


Peter Straub’s The Buffalo Hunter is a strange, engrossing, singular work.  Like much of Straub’s longer fiction, it horrifies almost indirectly, menacing the reader with a sense of dread rather than going for the jugular.  The inspiration, Straub explains, comes from an art opening: 

…called BED MILK SHOE by a friend who is a sculptor, Rona Pondick.  [T]his show included several beds with baby bottles lashed to them…I wondered what that kind of thing would look like if it were made without any artistic impulse.  And what kind of person would make it?

Straub’s answer is Bobby Bunting, a thirty-five year-old New Yorker caught in the grip of delusions and obsessions.  After discovering his old baby bottle in a cabinet (taken from his childhood home), he becomes fixated on it.  Throughout the novella, we grow to understand the nature of Bobby’s childhood, dominated by his angry father; this first baby bottle acts as a symbol to a time before his young life was defined by pain and belittlement.  However, as Bobby’s obsession grows, so does the level of his regression.  Straub is careful to note how much Bobby is taking out of his bank account to fund his growing collection of baby bottles, effectively emphasizing the degree to which adult Bobby is giving himself over to baby Bobby.  The fact that Bobby usually drinks vodka from the bottles provides a jarring juxtaposition between the mindsets; by the end of the story, Bunting has even let go of this tenuous hold on adulthood, dumping all of his alcohol down the drain.

He has crafted an intricate, all-encompassing story about a girlfriend named Veronica who doesn’t exist, mainly so he can tell his parents that she keeps him too busy to visit them.  The story of Veronica becomes so pervasive that Bobby himself has trouble separating the story from his own reality; when he tells his parents and his coworkers that they broke up, Bobby feels as if he’s really ended a relationship.  

In a way, he has.  The key to The Buffalo Hunter is that fiction and reality – like adulthood and childhood – are almost interchangeable, at least in Bobby Bunting’s world.  Early in the novel, he tries to read a novel called The Buffalo Hunter, by Luke Short.  Instead, he tumbles into the book (“The lines of print swam up to meet him,” is how Straub puts it) somehow living inside it rather than reading it.  Straub’s novella gives itself over to pages of Bunting in the Luke Short Western, a suddenly violent sequence that leaves Bunting shaken.  As Bobby’s instability increases, both he and the reader ask whether these experiences really happened, or if they’re just incredibly realistic delusions.  A Tolstoy quote at the start of the novella looms over the text, both anticipates these questions; Bobby’s late purchase of a used copy of Anna Karenina seems to answer them.

It’s not always easy to live inside Bobby Bunting’s mind, but it’s constantly fascinating; he’s what Patrick Bateman of American Psycho might have been if his fixations had been literary and his violence had been entirely internal. Bunting’s name is at first obvious, as in the nursery rhyme, “Bye, Baby Bunting,” but eventually takes on multiple resonances.  The mirroring alliteration of “baby bottles”/”Bobby Bunting” is clever, and the nursery rhyme’s second line, “Daddy’s gone a-hunting,” underscores both Bobby’s bloody journey into The Buffalo Hunter, and his father’s dominating presence.  The Buffalo Hunter is a tense experience, and Straub – here and elsewhere, especially in his recent Lost Boy, Lost Girl – is unusually expert at knowing when to spin the release valves just a little so that the story remains entertaining and accessible, and a good introduction to Straub’s prose style.  

Peter Straub’s previous releases with Cemetery Dance, Sides and Pork Pie Hat, arrived in exciting limited and trade editions to wild acclaim.  The Buffalo Hunter continues that tradition, coming in three attractive states.  The traycased hardcover lettered edition of 52 copies and the hardcover limited edition of 450 copies sold out prior to publication, but the handsome trade hardcover remains available – a great deal for readers and collectors who already love Straub, or are looking to break into his fiction for the first time.