On January 20th's Rare Book Cafe, cohost Lin Thompson will consider the half-lives of cult writers, short and long. Here's a case study from half a century ago:
“I have always wanted to write a book that ended with the word 'mayonnaise.’”
Richard Gary Brautigan (1935-1984)
His friend, the author Tom McGuane- who actually liked Brautigan- said, when the Sixties ended, Brautigan was “the baby thrown out with the bathwater”: a fad, “nothing but a pet rock! A fucking hula hoop!”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who knew him for years, called him “a willful naif”- “he was forever waiting to grow up.”
Terence Malley observed in his Richard Brautigan: Writers for the Seventies, "In general, people who write or talk about Brautigan tend to be either snidely patronizing or vacuously adoring."
The book critic Jonathan Yardley called Brautigan “the Love Generation’s answer to Charlie Schultz. Happiness is a warm hippie.”
To most over sixty, he is forgotten; to most under sixty, unknown.
Brautigan, who published 23 books in 27 years, could hardly have had less promising beginnings. His mother, Lulu, was a waitress in Tacoma, Washington, who split up with his dad eight months before he was born. She drifted around the Pacific Northwest for years, marrying four times and having a child each time, until the 1940s, when the family settled in Eugene, Oregon.
He remembered the family going days with little to eat, and being left alone, at five, with his stepsister, for two days in a motel in Great Falls, Montana.
He graduated high school in Eugene, published a poem or two in the school paper, and made a name on the basketball court (by eighteen he stood 6’4”). He yo-yoed between Eugene and San Francisco in 1954-55, coming home when he ran out of money.
In December 1955, depressed over a failed romance, he walked into the Eugene Police Department and asked to be arrested. The police said no, so he pitched a brick through their front window. Hospitalized for a year, he was diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia and treated with electroconvulsive therapy. He wrote a short novel, The God of the Martians, composed of twenty 600-word chapters.
Released, he returned to San Francisco and remained there the rest of his life. He tried to make himself a poet, passing out mimeographed verse on the streets and getting rejection letters from publishers. His first published poem, a long verse called The Return of the River, came out in 1957, and he published small collections in 1958 and 1959.
In the 1960s, Brautigan eked out a life. His wife and child left him in 1960, alarmed by his alcohol-medicated depressions. Still, he began to get some traction.
His novel, A Confederate General in Big Sur, was a flop in 1964, but Trout Fishing In America (1967) got the roll of the zeitgeist dice down, and became a bestseller. Between 1968 and 1970 he published 23 short pieces in Rolling Stone.
In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut championed Brautigan with Vonnegut's publisher, which picked up his backlist and boosted the young writer’s sales and critical reputation.
A Poetry Foundation bio of Brautigan sums up his appeal in those days:
Despite Brautigan's off-beat and fantastic prose, Malley asserted that he "is very much in the American grain." Similarly, Dictionary of Literary Biography's Novak noted of Trout Fishing in America: "It has a traditional theme of American novels: the influence of the American frontier and wilderness on the American imagination, its lifestyle, its economics, its ethics, its therapies, its religion, its politics."
Kenneth Seib, writing in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, also observed an attachment to a typically American literary genre: "For all its surface peculiarity,... [Trout Fishing in America] is centrally located within a major tradition of the American novel—the romance—and is conditioned by Brautigan's concern with the bankrupt ideals of the American past. Its seemingly loose and episodic narrative, its penchant for the marvelous and unusual, its pastoral nostalgia—all of these things give it that sense of 'disconnected and uncontrolled experience' which Richard Chase finds essential to the romance-novel."
Similarly, David L. Vanderwerken commented, also in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, "In choosing to write the kind of fiction that he does—symbolic, parabolic, fantastic—Brautigan clearly aligns himself with the tradition of American romancers, as opposed to that of the realists."
A concern with nature coupled with often surreal and whimsical plots typifies Brautigan's novels, which combine pastoral imagery with an examination of social disintegration within the contemporary human condition.
He was compared to Thoreau, Twain, and Donald Barthelme, only with bleaker humor and less optimism; one of his recurring themes was how American believed they could rid themselves of the baneful effects of technology and pollution through the use of technology and pollution. He was signed to do a spoken word album on The Beatles’ short-lived Zapple label, which was shuttered after he recorded but before release; EMI eventually picked it up.
Trout Fishing sold over four million copies and cemented Brautigan as the new fiction star, crossing over from the late Beats to the new hippie dawn. Brautigan, who loathed hippies, saw himself as an endlessly evolving stylist. He could never write another Trout Fishing, he said. Once it was done he dismantled the machine and scattered its parts in the back yard to rust (he didn’t much like The Beats, either, after Allen Ginsberg, who took an instant dislike to him, nicked him “Frood”).
Dwight Garner, reviewing a 2012 biography, Jubilee Hitchhiker, wrote,
Generations of anglers have picked up “Trout Fishing in America” based on its title alone, expecting a how-to volume. What they get instead is akin to a gentle tab of LSD: an eccentric and slyly profound novel, seemingly narrated by the ghost of trout fishing past and filled with surreal post-“Walden” visions like a dismembered trout stream for sale at a junkyard.
In that way, the book is not unlike David James Duncan’s 1980s bestseller, The River Why: a fish story about life.
While the living was good, Brautigan lived very well. He reveled in fame, Garner continued,
in gonzo times in Montana with writers like Mr. McGuane and Jim Harrison, and wildcats like Warren Zevon, Rip Torn, Jeff Bridges, Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton.
Brautigan was essentially a loner, but he had a Zelig-like quality and seemed to know everyone and go everywhere. He drank heavily in Western bars with the young Jimmy Buffett.
He shot basketball and tore up money (a long story, that one) with Jack Nicholson. He had an impromptu pasta sauce cook-off with Francis Ford Coppola.
He drunkenly pointed a rifle at Wim Wenders, who had mildly criticized the translation in one of Brautigan’s German editions.
Janis Joplin wanted him to name her new band.
His penchant for brick-throwing was lifelong:
Bored at a party one night, he hurled a brick through a window, a typical Brautigan performance. When the host screamed at him, he replied, “I don’t want things to be predictable.” He and director Sam Peckinpah shared a fondness for shooting at alley cats from hotel room windows.
Five novels followed in the 1970s, probably the best of which was The Abortion: A Historical Romance 1966. He married again, 1977-80, and conducted serial affairs before, during and after his marriages.
“Happiness for Brautigan” Garner wrote, “usually meant, to borrow the title of an undervalued W. M. Spackman novel, an armful of warm girl.”
In San Francisco, where he mostly lived, and elsewhere, he had groupies and would hit on ‘anything that wasn’t nailed down,’ one friend commented. He put some of his favorite bohemian cuties on the front of his books. ‘Richard’s sexual archive,’ another friend said, ‘is reflected on his book covers.” Brautigan may have been having a flash of self-awareness when he wrote,
“I will be very careful the next time I fall in love, she told herself. Also, she had made a promise to herself that she intended on keeping. She was never going to go out with another writer: no matter how charming, sensitive, inventive or fun they could be. They weren't worth it in the long run. They were emotionally too expensive and the upkeep was complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around the house that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it. She wanted her next lover to be a broom.”
The poor man’s David Foster Wallace, he was often miserably depressed, contemplated suicide, drank too much.The sudden collapse of his popularity made matters worse. In his last years, he couldn’t find a publisher willing to take his work.
Alone, he retreated to a big, old house he bought in Bolinas, a Marin County beach town, and there he killed himself in September 1982. It was a month before the body was found, so reclusive had he become.
Brautigan’s influence can be best seen in the works of W.P. Kinsella (The Iowa Baseball Conspiracy) and the more recent novels of the Japanese author Haruki Murikawa (1Q84).
In The Abortion, Brautigan’s hero is the librarian of a very unusual California library which accepts books in any form and from anyone who wishes to drop one off at the library—children submit tales told in crayon about their toys; teenagers tell tales of angst and old people drop by with their memoirs—described as "the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing" in the novel.
Summoned by a silver bell at all hours, submissions are catalogued at the librarian's discretion; not by the Dewey Decimal system, but by placement on whichever magically dust-free shelf would, in the author's judgment, serve best as the book's home.
A man in Burlington, Vermont, Todd Lockwood, opened The Brautigan Library as a real repository for unpublished works. As time passed and the novelty ran low, so did funds, and the Library closed in 1995.
In 2010, the collection was pulled out of storage and moved to Vancouver, Washington, Brautigan’s native state. There they were installed in the Clark County Historical Museum which, like Brautigan’s imaginary library, is housed in a former Carnegie Library building.
The collection now exceeds four hundred volumes. The Library also hosts (inter)National Unpublished Writers Day celebrations and workshops annually on the last Sunday in January.
For some, there will always be a hippie heaven, where Brautigan is Jesus. In 1994, an American teenager legally changed his name to Trout Fishing in America; he is now a university professor in Japan, where Brautigan is what Jerry Lewis is to the French. Shortly afterward, NPR reported a couple named their newborn after the book.
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