Richard Brautigan was not a great novelist. He was a worse poet. He did, however, have a remarkable – and fleeting – talent for tapping into a certain substrata of the national zeitgeist.
Thus, for a few years Brautigan was the unlikeliest of counter-culture icons. One critic noted that in the 1960’s, the release of a new Brautigan book was akin to the appearance of a new Bob Dylan album.
I was introduced to Brautigan’s works through the dog-eared copy of his novella In Watermelon Sugar that my older sister had abandoned in the bathroom closet–which may be the most effective way yet devised to introduce fifteen-year-old boys to literature.
I didn’t get In Watermelon Sugar, which isn’t surprising since most book reviewers didn’t quite know what to make of it either; a surreal allegory with a post-apocalyptic setting and a sun that shone a different color every day and what the hell was watermelon sugar anyway?
I had a sense that I wasn’t supposed to get it. We were entering strange new territory, having left the familiar and safe land of John Steinbeck and Willa Cather around the last forested bend.
I kept coming back to In Watermelon Sugar, like a hippie fisherman to a dependable trout stream. Perhaps I was attracted by the subversive themes of revolution and peace and other radical ideas my parents and the Catholic Church would have disapproved of.
Or perhaps it was because it made me laugh:
“Here is a list of the things that I will tell you about in this book. There’s no use saving it until later. I might as well tell you now where you’re at—
1: iDEATH. (A good place.)
2: Charley (My friend.)
3: The tigers and how they lived and how beautiful they were and how they died and how they talked to me while they ate my parents, and how I talked back to them and how they stopped eating my parents, though it did not help my parents any, nothing could help them by then, and we talked for a long time and one of the tigers helped me with my arithmetic, then they told me to go away while they finished eating my parents, and I went away. I returned later that night to burn the shack down. That’s what we did in those days.”
Brautigan was a master at creating poignant mood-scapes with just a few words. Partly it was his naive, childlike narration. Always terribly sad and terribly funny at the same time.
Years after the forty-nine-year-old author discharged a revolver into his mouth and followed his hero Hemingway to the great library of unpublished books in the sky, Brautigan’s daughter Ianthe sought to discover the spring of her father’s sadness.
From time to time, he’d hinted at the causes in his fiction, particularly in his semi-autobiographical novel So the Wind Doesn’t Blow it All Away, where he described a mystical Pacific Northwest childhood full of wonder and sadness and tragedy. Ianthe wrote that Brautigan’s mother would leave him and his little sister terrified and alone in their welfare motel room for days upon end, while she went out looking for a new husband. She wrote that her father was so hungry once he threw a brick through a police station window so he wouldn’t starve.
Most of what I read fades immediately from memory. Plot, characters, setting, mood, all vanish like a used bookstore in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood.
But Brautigan has remained with me like a deep and fresh scar.
A few of the stories in his short story collection The Revenge of the Lawn have especially stuck with me.
I’m thinking of his story “⅓, ⅓. ⅓,” chosen by Raymond Carver as one of the great American short stories of the last century. The story is about a young couple who are attempting to write The Great American Novel only they have no typewriter. They ask the narrator, whom they have heard typing away in his cardboard box, if he will collaborate with them.
“I was about seventeen and made lonely and strange by that Pacific Northwest of so many years ago, that dark, rainy land of 1952. I’m thirty-one now and I still can’t figure out what I meant by living the way I did in those days.”
The three strike a deal in which they will split the immense profits of their book into thirds. The story ends with the narrator “pounding at the gates of American literature.”
Brautigan’s best work is not the cult classic Trout Fishing in America, which is as meandering as a shimmering north Pacific stream and as uneven as the floor of an old rural Oregon shack, but his short story “A Short History of Oregon” which tells of a young man who goes hitchhiking and hunting in the rain and comes unexpectedly upon some children on the porch of a shack. There’s more to it, but it’s in the telling. Brautigan’s telling, not mine.
The story’s ending couldn’t be more perfect. So why don’t I leave you with that?
“I’ll have to admit that I was a strange sight coming down their muddy little road in the middle of God-damn nowhere with darkness coming on and a 30:30 cradled down in my arms, so the night rain wouldn’t get in the barrel.
The kids didn’t say a word as I walked by. The sisters’ hair was unruly like dwarf witches’. I didn’t see their folks. There was no light on in the house.
A Model A truck lay on its side in front of the house. It was next to three empty fifty-gallon oil drums. They didn’t have a purpose any more. There were some odd pieces of rusty cable. A yellow dog came out and stared at me.
I didn’t say a word in my passing. The kids were soaking wet now. They huddled together in silence on the porch. I had no reason to believe that there was anything more to life than this.”
Chris Orlet is the author of the forthcoming A Taste of Shogtun (All Due Respect) and In the Pines (New Pulp Press).
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