Friday, July 2, 2010

“Playing with gentle glass things”: An appreciation of Richard Brautigan

I first became aware of Richard Brautigan in books I read about the Beatles, as his sole spoken-word LP was at one time intended to be a release on the “Zapple” label. My first encounter with Brautigan’s writing was again Beatle-related: he wrote a very haunting intro to the mass-market paperback The Beatles Lyrics Illustrated called “The Silence of Flooded Houses.” Then I read his short story collection, The Revenge of the Lawn, and my lifelong love of his work began. 

Brautigan is typically described as a “Sixties cult figure,” sometimes as a Beat writer, sometimes as a hippie icon. He was actually neither — he was younger than the Beats and not thought by them to be serious enough; though he clearly loved hippie chicks, he stayed far away from drugs and the communal lifestyle of the Haight-Ashbury district he lived in during the “Summer of Love." 

He is also often defined by the fact that he committed suicide at the age of 49 in 1984. I will leave behind those aspects for a bit and talk about what he really was: a poet and novelist who blended a gently surreal prose style with a wry, deadpan sense of humor and a view of nature as both constant and sheltering, and eternally subject to change. 

His writing style is deceptively simple, as was Vonnegut’s (in fact Vonnegut recommended Brautigan to his first mainstream publisher) and, although he can’t be duplicated, his influence is felt today in more whimsical, less poetic writers like Tom Robbins. The easy-to-read aspect of Brautigan’s prose caused him to be vastly underrated by American critics and academics and, true to form, has made him a cult hero in parts of Europe and Asia (the best American writers, musicians, and filmmakers tend to have more fervent cult followings in other countries than they do over here). 

For me, Brautigan’s work has been a touchstone since my teen years. Although capsule biographies of the man seem to dote on his last few depressed years, the sense I get from his Sixties work is that of a visionary optimist, and his Seventies/early Eighties work conveys a melancholic whose curiosity and wonder at bizarre insights and juxtapositions sustained him. For me, his writing is “magical,” perhaps in the sense of magical realism, since fantastic events are recounted in a comically deadpan fashion. Whatever the case may be, his writing never fails to lift my spirits when I’m feeling down, and as a writer I wish I could view life through the very special lens he was blessed with.

In the fall of last year, I came across discounted copies of the three collections of Brautigan’s work that have thankfully remained in print. I own the original paperbacks of all of his books (setting aside the limited-edition chapbooks and early broadsides), but the idea of revisiting the works between new covers intrigued me (my fascination with his work had found me haunting bookstores during the final years of his life hoping to find any new material by him). And it had indeed been decades since I had read most of the books — I used to gulp them down in single sittings back in the late Seventies, which had left me with vivid memories of some images and plot points, but a hazy recall of the particulars of most of the later titles. 

So I’ve spent the last eight months or so spacing out my reading of his work, just so I could make it last longer — there were only ten novels, two short story collections and five slim volumes of poetry. I found that the books I thought were “minor” (Sombrero Fallout) or “a little too long” (A Confederate General From Big Sur) were the right length, and several shades deeper than I’d been able to perceive as a grammar-/high-schooler. Brautigan’s poetry is a vivid and inventive, late 20th-century blend of his two influences, William Carlos Williams and the Japanese haiku poets. 

The poems, which are thankfully all available online (!) at the indispensable The Richard Brautigan Bibliography and Archive, run the gamut from quick gags, to surreal daydreams, to gorgeous love poems written for the women in his life (who were often seen on the covers of the books). A definitive volume of his collected poetry is long overdue, but in the meantime, I urge you to check the work out on the Brautigan Archive.

I had briefly wondered why Brautigan’s daughter Ianthe has allowed all of his verse to remain online on one “above-ground” site, but the reasons are apparent: all but one of his books of poetry are out of print, and the man himself used to stand on the street in Haight-Ashbury handing out his work. Brautigan wanted people to read his poems, and in this era of instant Net gratification, I’m sure he’d be glad they are all right there, out in public view. (He also was miles ahead of the curve when he wrote a poetic paean to the merging of the natural and the cybernetic, "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace," right.)

Of particular interest to fans like myself who only have his books from mainstream publishers is a digital recreation of his totally, utterly, completely out of print “book” (consisting of seed packets in a folder with poems on them) called Please Plant This Book

Brautigan’s novels break down neatly into three periods. The first is the absolutely magical Sixties work, which is best sampled in Revenge of the Lawn (in print in one of the three-in-one collections) and the three-in-one volume that appeared during Brautigan’s lifetime and has remained in print all these years. It contains his best-known work, Trout Fishing in America, the poetry collection The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster, and what is definitely his most “perfect” novel in my view, In Watermelon Sugar. Extremely low-key, IWS creates a world all its own, offering a bizarrely prescient allegory for the hippie era that was most likely intended as a simple comment about the joys and perils of communal living (he wrote the book in 1964, but it was published in 1968). 

The Abortion also seems to “sum up” the Sixties in a unique way. Written in 1966 but not published until 1971, it contains one of Brautigan’s most indelible creations, the Library of Unpublished Works. (A real-life equivalent to this exquisite dream-creation existed for a while in Burlington, Vermont.)

The second period of Brautigan’s fiction found him tackling a different genre every year, producing four very original books. His “gothic western” The Hawkline Monster and comic private-eye novel Dreaming of Babylon are still in print, but sadly the two more oddly personal and darkly humorous titles are completely gone from sight. 

Willard and his Bowling Trophies tells the story of a couple experimenting with mild S&M while three dumb-ass brothers search for their precious bowling trophies, which have been stolen from them but just happen to be sitting in the apartment right below the awkward S&M couple. I read the book as a teen and found it extremely funny and imaginative. As I reread it now, I still find it humorous, but realize the deep vein of sadness in the S&M couple’s interaction (details in Brautigan bios would seem to indicate that both the couple’s play and their unease are based on his own relationships with women in the Seventies). The book still has its wonderfully funny moments, but it’s quite something else when you come to it as a middle-aged person.

His novels were all “strange” in one delightful way or another, but the other out-of-print “genre” novel (which is the most playfully un-genre-fied work from this period), Sombrero Fallout, is perhaps his strangest narrative ever. A heartbroken “humorist” who seems to be Brautigan himself pines for the Japanese girl who broke up with him, while a page of a story he threw away starts to “live” in his garbage pail. Like Willard…, the book is an absolute revelation, as it mixes a blissful level of oddball humor with a sense of romantic loss that jumps right off the page. 

The third period of RB’s fiction is comprised of only three books. The Tokyo-Montana Express is a sort of diary of his journeys between a ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana, his adopted home, and Tokyo, a city that adopted him (he became a cult writer in Japan in the late Seventies, due to the haiku-like nature of his work). I delayed re-reading Brautigan’s last two novels, as they both exhibit the sadness that enveloped the end of his life. 

So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away is a terrific, characteristically low-key tale of adolescence that shares with the final novel, An Unfortunate Woman, a roundabout, Tristram Shandy-like approach to storytelling (although Brautigan does tie up his loose ends very neatly). Also, both books are most definitely about the proximity of death in everyday life. 

The emotional ties I have to Brautigan’s work have grown stronger as I have gotten older, and so I was very glad to find a few kindred spirits online who have done beautiful tributes to the man and his work. There are several interesting articles on him here, and Dennis Cooper did a terrific blog entry that includes good samples of Brautigan’s prose. 

The two most invaluable references, though, are Jen Leibhart’s e-mail list, housed on her site The Brautigan Pages, and the already mentioned “deep” resource that is The Richard Brautigan Bibliography and Archive, run by Brautigan scholar John F. Barber. 

Brautigan video clips are very scarce, since he wasn’t a Mailer or Capote-like self-promoter and thus seemingly never appeared on TV(if he did, the appearance is buried in some archive or was disposed of years ago). He did, appear, however in an informal fishing documentary called Tarpon with his Montana writer friends Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane. Here is a scene from Tarpon that shows Brautigan simply hanging out and animatedly chatting with his pals: 


Brautigan walking in San Francisco in something called “Nowsreal”:


There are a number of people reciting Brautigan’s poetry on YouTube, but here is one soul’s “visualization” of a poem which features a sexy woman seen from the back. Methinks Richard would approve…


Another super-rarity: Brautigan “interviews” a little girl for a friend’s film project:


I find it every heartening to see that younger readers are taking Brautigan’s work to heart. Here are scenes from an event called “XXI Century Brautiganism” that took place on the WSU Vancouver Canvas late last year:

His spoken-word LP, Listening to Richard Brautigan, can be heard here, and it can be downloaded here.

In closing, I’ll just note that I had an incredibly brief encounter with Brautigan at a signing for Tokyo-Montana at the Greenwich Village Brentano’s (which, if I remember correctly, was on 8th St. and Fifth Avenue). He was sick on that day, but showed up anyway and signed books. For some unknownable fanboy reason, when my turn came, I said, “I never thought I’d see you in a situation like this!” He answered with a deep hoarse voice, “I never thought I’d see myself in a situation like this….” and dutifully signed the old paperbacks I handed him in his trademark tiny handwriting. I then told him, “You’re my favorite author,” and he got very quiet and handed the now-autographed books back. 

Perhaps he thought I was just being kind, that I had felt obliged to say what I did, or perhaps he was so sick he didn’t even care, but I’ve always been glad that I got to say those words to him. I meant them, and still do.

1 comment:

Robert Cook said...

You're correct about the location of the Greenwich Village Brentano's. That's where I bought the original hardcover edition of CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES on a visit to NYC before I had moved here, and it was one of my regular stopping in places after I moved here...until it closed. (So many good NYC bookstores are now long-gone.?

I liked this post about Brautigan. I never read him, but I was aware of him in the late 60s/early 70s, his image and bookcovers and titles seemed iconically omnipresent in the culture at the time. (I was born in '55, so I was an adolescent when he seemed most visible.)