cover image Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers

Robert O'Connor. Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41508-4

Once again, a first novelist inveigles the reader's empathy for a swaggering substance abuser by using direct address in the second person. But while Bright Lights, Big City jammed its hero's addiction up the nose of a greedy decade, this book can make no such zeitgeisty claims for its cocksure central character--Army Specialist Ray Elwood, based in present-day Germany. Elwood has brokered his genius for writing never-fail requisition memos into a profitable operation, specializing in skag and elaborate favor-banking. When a new sergeant threatens his system, Elwood tries for one final payday. Despite the annoying and intrusive familiarity of the formal device (``You want to get off, and two men in your squad need to shoot up. Here's how you do it . . . ''), the novel remains highly readable; O'Connor writes bitter, funny prose and creates bureaucratic snafus of the first order. Alternating scenes of Army idiocy and clinically realistic drug addiction are far more compelling than O'Connor's attempt to attribute his hero's bracing nihilism to his tragic past. Toward its end the book falters, as Elwood flirts with maudlin self-pity. But O'Connor misfires now and then only because he aims high; aided by his infectious gift for sneering and his sharp eye for institutionalized depravity, he marks most of his targets with tight clusters around the bull's-eye. ( Jan. )