Buff Tea

Written by Edward E. Erdelac
Review by James Hawking

This tale of buffalo-skinning and Indian-fighting in the Old West is narrated by an unnamed young Chicagoan, variously referred to as “Juniper” or “Stretch” by his more experienced comrades. The title refers to polluted water filtered through a bandana. The book’s strength lies in vivid descriptions, like this one of a trading post:

“The crudely cut timber frame of the doorway, covered only by a stiff animal hide, was crowded with sloppily hewn, weathered shingles that bore various advertisements scrawled in a big childish hand. They proclaimed ‘LIKKER,’ and ‘ARMAMINTS, TACK and CARDS,’ and on one shingle that hung completely vertical by one rusty nail, ‘KENO’ with the ‘O’ on a separate square of hastily hung wood.”

Loosely strung episodes, usually of sudden violence or disgusting squalor, struggle to form a plot. The one comic sequence involving the frontiersmen at a reading of Titus Andronicus depicts a collision between Shakespeare and frontier decency. One of the buffalo hunters, concerned for the delicacy of the ladies present, performs an act of censorship with his fist. However, from this point on, the narrative returns to shooting at buffalos or Indians and picking arrows out of each other. Characters like the leader War Bag Tyler follow stock patterns familiar to readers of Westerns. Roam, a black former soldier, surprises the narrator by his refusal to accept a racial role, but this results in predictable danger. Perhaps the most sympathetic characters are a caged bear and the narrator’s friend who challenges it to a claw versus knife fight.

To some extent the form is that of a bildungsroman, but the young narrator doesn’t learn much, and we don’t either.