Oscar Zeta Acosta

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo

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The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo Summary

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Set in Oakland California, Mexican-American author Oscar Zeta Acosta’s fictionalized autobiography, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972), concerns an unnamed lawyer who experiences strong disillusionment with the American state while working for a poverty alleviation agency in Oakland, California. The story takes place in a series of flashbacks that explore the narrator’s relationships with his psychiatrist, coworkers, and friends, and feature imaginary discourses with historical figures that the narrator admires. Through these relationships, the narrator forges a distinct American identity that resonates with common mid-twentieth-century feelings of alienation and existential dread.

The novel is split into four main sections. The first takes place entirely on July 1, 1967, though it is punctuated with flashbacks to earlier moments in the narrator’s life. On that morning, the narrator expresses his dissatisfaction with his work and his body. He engages in dialogue with James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson, three men he considers heroes. Contrasted with their words of support is the imaginary voice of his psychiatrist, Dr. Serbin, who is aware of his sexual attraction for his friend’s wife. The narrator goes to his office, where he works a dead-end legal job for which he sedates himself by abusing alcohol and other drugs. He is confronted with the news that his secretary, Pauline, has died from cancer.

The narrator pities himself for losing his essential staff, remembering his own bout with a dangerous illness several years before. During that time, he befriended a couple, Alice and Ted Casey. After the narrator slept with Alice, Ted threatened him, terminating their friendship. Back in the present day, the narrator goes to Ted’s house to apologize, but no one is home. Next, he goes to Dr. Serbin’s but leaves after being asked to wait. He goes to a local bar and meets a group of friends, each of whom, in a different way, is a social outcast in San Francisco. Feeling sexually unsatisfied, he calls his ex-girlfriend, June, who rejects him. He passes out, bringing July 1 to an end.

The second section takes place during a road trip the narrator takes outside San Francisco. Driving while highly intoxicated, he recalls the story of his family’s journey to the United States. Though the narrator was born in Texas and raised mainly in Riverbank, California, his parents immigrated illegally to the States from Mexico to escape poverty. His father went on to serve in the army during World War II, receiving citizenship after completing his term. The family squeezed into a dilapidated house. The narrator recounts his many love interests, most of which were one-sided. After high school, he joined the Air Force and had a crisis of faith while volunteering as a missionary. After moving to New York and nearly committing suicide, the narrator traveled to Wilmington and attended a party hosted by a rich childhood friend, Karen. The next morning, after a night of heavy drug and alcohol abuse, he woke up on Ernest Hemingway’s gravestone. The story shifts back to the present as the narrator continues his drive through California.

In the third section, the narrator arrives at Alpine, the destination of his road trip. Feeling bad for himself, he crashes at a hotel, then wakes and searches for a former friend, Bobby Miller. He meets Bobby’s girlfriend, Bobbi, and an intimidating friend, King. The narrator picks up his life story: after leaving the Air Force, he enrolled in community college. A professor encouraged him to think freely about his career options, causing him to follow an impulse to enroll in a police academy in Los Angeles. He decided, instead, to find his friend, Al, locating him at a psychiatric hospital. Al’s negative experience with the cops compelled the narrator to enroll in a liberal arts program at San Francisco State. Back in the present, the narrator crashes his car after inadvertently ingesting LSD. He finds King, who takes him to the bus station. They exchange numbers and part ways.

The novel’s shorter, concluding section takes place over a longer span of time than the others. The narrator disembarks his bus in Vail, Colorado. He takes up minimum wage jobs and is frequently fired. After a few months, he returns to his birthplace, El Paso, hoping to garner insights about his life’s purpose. He crosses the border into Mexico and sleeps with some prostitutes. After an altercation with his hotel concierge about a trivial problem with his room, he is thrown in jail. At trial, his judge scolds him for adding to the problems that exist at the Mexican-American border and issues a fine. Finally, the narrator returns to Los Angeles, bent on becoming a political activist and using his legal skills to improve American society. He adds his middle name, “Zeta,” in acknowledgment of his Mexican roots.

Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo is part of a group of countercultural novels that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that described individuals’ reactions to war, poverty, socioeconomic injustice, and feelings of alienation. As the narrator finds his way out of a destructive hedonistic routine, he finds his identity within American society and aspires to improve the conditions around him.