BOOK REVIEW / Uncle Sam's crack troops: 'Buffalo Soldiers' - Robert O'Connor: Flamingo, 5.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
VERY occasionally, you read a book which is so powerful that your world-view shifts a little to incorporate a new understanding. In this first novel, Robert O'Connor displays a brilliant facility with language, while he also takes a cool look at weighty preoccupations of love, morality and death, and comes up with a commentary which is as impressive as it is disconcerting.

At first sight the material doesn't look too promising. It tells the story of Elwood, clerk to the battalion commander of the 57th US Army Division, currently stationed in Germany. However, Elwood's real career plans centre around his activity as a major-league drug-dealer, supplying just about every GI on the base, plus anyone else who might be interested.

Maybe it's because of his dealings with Vietnam vets, or as a result of his experience teaching English at a maximum security prison, but O'Connor has managed to get it right. For once someone has chosen to write about male violence and the scummy end of life without sounding as if they're making a bad attempt to empathise. When Elwood finally falls in love, and gives his girl her first shot of heroin, we understand perfectly. After all, if you really cared for someone, you'd want to share the important things with them, wouldn't you?

In following Elwood's trajectory, O'Connor gives us a funny and frightening portrayal of what life is like in Uncle Sam's peacetime army. Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and ultraviolence are the order of the day, leavened by a substantial dose of race hatred. The officers provide little more than a minor inconvenience to the dealing, thieving and corruption. As one of the characters says: 'If this was wartime, we'd all be fighting on the same side, but as it is . . .' If Buffalo Soldiers gives even 10 per cent of the truth about the US Army proper, it's amazing that the airlift supplies for Bosnia weren't sold off for skag before they got aboard the planes. And as for dropping them in the right country - pure luck, obviously.

Although he deals with some of the most unlovable sections of humanity, O'Connor's book suggests that hope and salvation are always just around the corner, and the novel's denouement is delicate, unflinching and deeply moving.