Of all the literary movements of the 20th century the Beat Generation occupies the most untouchable position. They are still so hip that any criticism takes on the form of heresy. For fear of appearing square they are allowed to get away with murder.
The movement was never quite a movement to begin with; more a ragged group of hopeless romantics and scoundrels united by vague quasi-Buddhistic concepts, potent sexism, Rimbaud-esque spontaneity, intellectual snobbery and a jazz tinged bohemianism.
Undoubtedly there are glimpses of utter genius; Ginsberg’s Howl is a modern epic of immense scope and beauty, Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, when read as a demented Joycean autobiographical collage is superb and several of Kerouac’s journeys of travel and homoeroticism are worth accompanying him on.
Yet step beyond these early works and the myth begins to crumble.
Keroauc was the first to break. Petrified of the too-muchness of life he retired to the security of living with his mother and cut off all ties with the outside world. Sadly it was the beginning of a path that saw him compromise and reject all that he had stood for, stumbling into alcoholism and right wing conservatism. He emerged from his self-enforced exile on two notable occasions. One was on a talk show, bloated and bitter, where he drunkenly attacked and denounced all the youthful adventure and awe and passion the world had loved him for, in one of the saddest pieces of television footage. The second was when he was at a last party with his soul mate Neal Cassady and the young writer Ken Kesey; Keroauc, furious that someone intended to burn the stars and stripes, rescued the flag and left in acrimony. A disillusioned man he died when his cirrhotic liver could no longer function. He was found on his hands and knees vomiting blood, which he later drowned in after twenty-six transfusions.
Ginsberg never quite lived up to initial expectations, scribbling Kaddish and Death to Van Gogh’s Ear in the shadow of Howl.
Burroughs’s infamous queer, junkie, wife-killing William Tell and self-styled outlaw joined Ginsberg in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and released a series of gradually diminishing works, self-consciously avant garde and strangely devoid of any sense of humanity.
All three were safely assimilated into the mainstream by becoming characters in advertisements for large companies; Ginsberg did an ad for Gap and Burroughs, despite believing that advertising was a form of social control and materialism a destructive form of madness, did a Nike ad (both thus endorsing the beatific joys of sweatshops and third world slavery).
When Kerouac’s turn to sell out and do a Gap ad came, he at least had the excuse of being dead. One beat writer (Ferlinghetti) somberly saw entering the academy and the advertisements as the last nail in the counterculture’s coffin. This served to prove Marcuse’s theory that the dominant capitalist mainstream has an enormous capacity to ingest its dissident elements thus defusing the danger of their message. The establishment did not swallow all of them however.
Neal Cassady (“the side burned hero of the Snowy West” –On the Road) continued on a path of exploration with LSD before one night wandering onto a deserted Mexican railroad, intending to walk fifteen miles to the next town. He fell asleep on the way, wearing only a t-shirt and jeans. The night was filled with frost and then rain and he was found the following morning beside the tracks in a hypothermic coma, and died in a hospital later that day. His last words were “Sixty-Four Thousand Nine Hundred and Twenty-Eight,” supposedly how many railroad ties he had counted before his death. It leaves the conclusion that his fictional alter ego Dean Moriarty (On The Road) had asked so much of him that he had killed himself living up to the legend. It was burn out or sell out.
You are left with the feeling that this movement, so incandescent with genius at its birth, never became what it could have, should have been and eventually mutated into all that it had opposed. For every one of their libertarian masterpieces there are a thousand lesser works diluted of enthusiasm and imagination and for each of their glory years there are decades of silence or worse self-renunciation. Even those writers operating on the Beat fringe like Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson faded into lazy self-imposed obscurity after the magnificent One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Once it petrified the powers that be by being a libertarian and radical counter-culture. What it became was an apathetic cosmetically-radical luxury for fashionable middle class students to entertain themselves whilst delaying their entry into the workforce.
The thing with the Beats is that it shouldn’t matter if they are not all they are cracked up to be, writers rarely are, and the movement could through its eventual self destruction appear a glorious disaster, a literary James Dean that flickered out in the midst of some youthful passion. Where it becomes a problem is when their self-mythologizing eclipses greater literary talents. One of those lurking in their shadows goes by the name of Richard Brautigan.
Brautigan was an outsider amongst a gallery of outsiders and was possibly the most remarkable of the lot. And the shocking thing is his works, almost ceased to exist.
There have been many cases when the world has or almost has been deprived of important literary works. Kafka wished for his entire output to be destroyed as he wasted away with tuberculosis, thankfully a friend, who covertly went against his wishes, preserved them. Others were not so fortunate. Byron’s journals were burnt for fear of their explosive content; namely admission of the act of sodomy at the time carried the death penalty. Sylvia Plath’s final diary documenting her decline into depression and suicide was destroyed by her ex husband Ted Hughes in an act that to this day threatens to cause riots and effigy burning amongst her cult of admirers. And in an act of literary crime the works of Richard Brautigan remained unpublished since the sixties. You could walk into a bookstore and find the complete ramblings of the other Beats clogging up the shelves and yet searching for Brautigan was like rummaging for the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Thankfully the publishing press Rebel Inc. realized the insanity of this neglect and resurrected his work. It is not difficult to see what is so remarkable about his writing. There is a cool obscurity about him, like a book version of the Velvet Underground or the Beta Band; all the more overwhelming because few people know of it. People horde knowledge of him and ration it out to those whom they think are worthy, operating like a guild of alchemists, possessors of secret powerful knowledge. It is the stuff of knowing glances, winks and Masonic handshakes. I cannot say that he doesn’t deserve mainstream recognition, rather the mainstream doesn’t deserve him for he eclipses it.
He writes of apparent non-events. It aspires not to be a manifesto or a treatise but simply enjoyable stories that are close to life. This is something I envy of him. His lack of pretension makes his work all the more profound than those who proclaim brilliance, those that shout it from the rooftops. He trusts his readers enough to tell them a story rather than to preach or teach. In the Confederate General of Big Sur he mentions a wealth of other writers i.e. Nietzsche, Babel, Steinbeck, Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, Henry Miller- not in the belief that he is educating the reader but that he is suggesting sublime paths that the reader might consi
der taking. Sometimes he writes so emphatically and with such trust that rather than reading the book seems to talk, to develop a dialogue with the reader.
In his introduction to the Confederate General Duncan McLean comments, “I don’t know much about Richard Brautigan as a person. In fact I think I only know one thing about him and I wish I didn’t know it.” This of course is the fact that Brautigan killed himself in the early 1980s with a .44 caliber gun in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other. Why the act is so unthinkable is because it goes seemingly unannounced, where others gave hints, clues to suggest they were toying with the idea, Brautigan does not. There are no “to be or not to be” questions pondered here. A reader, blissfully ignorant to the fact he killed himself, would probably think he was still living a life of elderly hedonism out in the Mojave Desert or in the backwoods of New Orleans. Suicide is unthinkable for one reason because his books are filled to the brim with humor. From the unlikeliest of sources he conjures images of missing eyebrows, a symphony of frogs that are only silenced by the cry “Campbell’s Soup”, the incompatibility of the Bible with electricity and the remarkable figure of Lee Mellon. It should be remembered that the border between comedy and tragedy is as difficult to define as the borders of territories at sea or in deserts. Comedy is best when it is self-deprecating, when it allows us to laugh at our fears and anxieties but it does not, cannot remove them. Like all other intoxications humour is a distraction, a temporary reprieve from the unbearable. The private lives of the world’s greatest comedians are enough to remind us of the fact that primates grin when they are petrified and as a desperate attempt to defuse dangerous, traumatic situations.
Another reason why it is so hard to believe he killed himself is that his outlook on life is not bleak or nihilistic but rather is life affirming, a celebration of all that makes life worth living; sex, friendship, intoxication in all the forms sung by Baudelaire. This is constantly reiterated in his work, which like all real “magic realist” works, hints at the immense potentials of life and the extraordinary that lies beneath the mundane. Writing of impossible imagination and stunning beauty is often juxtaposed with events of the most everyday, the way epiphanies of beauty occur in life; the Southern accent that reads German philosophers and insists on quiet “when a man reads the Russians”, the daring cavalry attacks on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a hand resting on the crack of an ass like a bird on the branch of a tree, a bird that sings when you are impotent. Reading Brautigan, a stoner with the soul of Blake or Whitman, reminds you of the Oscar Wilde quote that seems to define Magic Realism: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are watching the stars”.
Some examples are worth simply reading without commentary:
Night was coming in, borrowing the light. It had started borrowing just a few cents worth of light but now it was borrowing thousands of dollars worth of light every second. The light would soon be gone, the bank closed, the tellers unemployed, the bank president a suicide.
The whiskey went well. I wish I could have offered the stars a drink. Looking down upon mortals, they probably need a drink from time to time, certainly on a night like this. We got drunk.”
What a wonderful sense of distortion Lee Mellon had. Finish that slice of bread. That thing I was holding in my hand never had anything to do with a slice of bread. I put my hammer and chisel aside and we went up to the truck.
And even though the Brautigan mentality to women is occasionally cliched he avoids the traditional Beat means to an end/sperm receptacle school of thought and displays a brave and haunting romanticism. “We went away with each other like small republics to join the United Nations” and “her lips parted and I ran my fingers gently along her teeth and touched the sleeping tip of her tongue. I felt like a musician touching a darkened piano” — for anyone who has ever been in love such lines are almost painfully beautiful.
It is easy to be hypnotized and delighted by the sad delirious beauty of Brautigan’s writing. And yet there are darker undercurrents, as there always are in humour that aspires to truth and knowledge. The book is littered with jokes; indeed it’s one of the only books to make me wake myself up laughing, having remembered some line mid-dream. And yet when the book is finished there is one scene, one chilling instant that haunts the reader; the moment when bugs stare out at the narrator from a burning log. It is at this point that Brautigan’s real life connects like electricity to the book. The drinking binges, the electro-shock therapy, his refusal to utter a single word to his mother, his need for “some tranquility . . . a little more distance between the frustrations and agonies in my life” hidden through the book like elements in the air, at this point make themselves known.
Duncan McLean in his introduction to the work suggests, as an explanation of his suicide, that the bugs are Brautigan looking out at us, his readers. I’d go further and say the insects represent all of us, Brautigan’s vision of a doomed humanity living on borrowed time. This is not to say that this is a hopeless tragedy rather we are liberated in a sense as our actions and relationships are all the more profound and precious because we are running out of time. Life ends in tragedy so the rest of it might as well be a comedy for there is nothing to lose. And I bet those bugs scuttling around that burning log, staring out at Brautigan, have no other options than to tell each other jokes.