(Richard Brautigan, a remarkable author of experimental fiction who was briefly popular during the Summer of Love-era, has been getting some overdue attention due to the publication of ‘Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan‘, an authoritative new biography by William Hjortsberg.
A quarter-century after the author’s suicide, Brautigan remains mostly a cult favorite, rarely remembered by literary critics. Hjortsberg’s new biography may help spread the word to newer generations of readers who, I’m sure, will love his writing for its power and originality. The new biography has received sensitive consideration from Dwight Garner in the daily New York Times last month, though John Leland was predictably dismissive in the New York Times Book Review. Several Litkicks pieces on Brautigan’s work can be found here, here and here. Today, I’m happy to present Michael Norris’s thoughts on Brautigan’s career, along with paintings by David Richardson, a literary artist from Brautigan’s own adopted home of San Francisco, California. — Levi)
Spleen De San Francisco by Michael Norris
Many years ago, my friend Larry and I hitchhiked from our college town in western Illinois, across the prairie, to the great city of Chicago. Larry’s brother was a student at the University of Chicago, and we crashed at his place with the purpose of attending a poetry reading.
The following day we wandered among the gothic spires of the campus until we came to a small student space tucked away amid the pointed arches and gargoyles. We joined a modest crowd waiting to hear Richard Brautigan read his poems.
Brautigan, tall and lanky with long hair and a long mustache, looked sort of like a gentle, be-spectacled re-incarnation of Wild Bill Hickok. For more than an hour he paced, posed, squatted and wandered the room, reciting poem after poem. No notes, no papers. We sat enthralled. No one made a sound until he finished and abruptly left the room. There was dead silence, followed by enthusiastic applause.
We discussed this performance long into the night.
Richard Brautigan published many books: poetry, novels, a short story collection.
I want to talk about his first three “novels”, if so they can be called, as they are unlike any works of fiction that have preceded or followed.
Brautigan’s first published novel was A Confederate General from Big Sur. This is a picaresque tale, the adventures of two partners in crime: Lee Mellon, and the narrator, Jesse.
The book has two parts. The first part establishes Lee Mellon as the Confederate General from Big Sur. Jesse meets Mellon carrying a bottle of whiskey, and they repair to an alley in San Francisco to drink it. After the whiskey is gone, and following the subsequent consumption of a gallon of muscatel, Mellon tells Jesse that his grandfather was General Augustus Mellon, who fought alongside Robert E. Lee in the Civil War.
The two men enter the San Francisco library to verify Mellon’s claim, but in the book Generals In Gray by Ezra J. Warner (a scholarly work on the Civil War) there is no mention of General Augustus Mellon. Lee Mellon is struck with disbelief, but he has Jesse swear that he believes that there really was a General Augustus Mellon. Jesse swears that he will always believe this, and as Lee Mellon comes from Big Sur, the Confederate General from Big Sur is born.
Mellon stays for a while in a room at the building were Jesse lives, but soon decamps for Oakland. He moves into an abandoned house, and as the gas was turned off for non-payment, he tunnels his way to the gas main and taps it. He has a library card to the Oakland Public library, and spends his time “reading the Russians.” Although Mellon has no money and has to scavenge for food, the squalor of his existence is the perfect atmosphere in which to read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev: “the Russians”.
The second part of the novel recounts the adventures of Lee Mellon and Jesse at Big Sur. Jesse hitchhikes down one day, and stays with Mellon in his ramshackle cabins on the cliffs above the sea. Lee Mellon is reminiscent of the character named Danny in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. He is a bit violent, but also cunning and charismatic. He and Jesse live a Tortilla Flat-like existence, a little further south down the coast from Steinbeck’s Monterrey. They drink, they smoke weed, they do as little work as possible except what is absolutely necessary to avoid starvation.
Along the way they pick up women, they entertain a crazed millionaire from San Jose who Mellon keeps chained to a log at night, and generally live a life far removed from that of main stream society.
At the end of the novel, Jesse is in a benumbed state, caught between his former life and his living-in-the-moment existence at Big Sur. In one of several alternate endings, the crazed millionaire returns, and they toss all his money – in hundred dollar bills – into the sea. The crazed millionaire, Johnston Wade when sane, Roy Earle when not, says, fittingly: “all this money ever did was bring me here”.
A Confederate General From Big Sur was Brautigan’s first novel in print, but it was a book he wrote earlier that would become his second published novel and put him on the literary map.
Trout Fishing in America was published at the right time and the right place. It was 1967, the Summer of Love, and Brautigan’s quirky novel resonated with the growing counter-culture. The cover of the book was an album cover: Brautigan and an unnamed woman, both dressed in Haight-Ashbury attire, posing in front of the statue of Ben Franklin in San Francisco’s Washington Square. The image might as easily have graced the cover of an album by a rock band from the burgeoning San Francisco scene.
Significantly, Washington Square is in North Beach, not Haight-Ashbury, but after the success of Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan would be forever linked with the hippie scene of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, rather than Beat-rooted North Beach.
Trout Fishing in America does not have a plot. Rather, it is constructed from a series of scenes and vignettes that when read in their entirety give us a vision of America. Some of the scenes resemble old sepia-toned photos from the narrator’s past. Others are clear snapshots of America at the midpoint of the twentieth century. We see the divide between the America of the pioneers and settlers, and the industrialized and commercialized America of the present.
In his collection of prose poems, Spleen de Paris, Charles Baudelaire presented a series of word images that when viewed in their entirety gave an image of the French capital: its modernity along with its old rag pickers and ancient streets. Brautigan portrays San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest in a similar way: the purity of nature seen (and then despoiled) by the 49ers; a nature compromised by modern society; and the urban scene with its winos, eccentrics and poets.
Brautigan seems to be applying the principles of Haiku to the novel form. Each chapter, each section is distilled down to its essence. No more, no less. Each section is stripped down to only the words that resonate and give the fullest picture.
Add to this Brautigan’s way with similes. Describing a hot day while hitchhiking home after fishing, Brautigan gives us this image: “the sun was like a huge fifty-cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and then had lit with a match and said, ‘Here hold this while I go get a newspaper, ‘ and put the coin in my hand, but never came back”. Such extraordinary imagery contrasts nicely with the pared down narration.
We essentially go fishing with Richard Brautigan, much as we went on the road with Jack Kerouac. But Brautigan is a completely objective observer. We see through his eyes with no emotional or contextual spin. Weview San Francisco and the trout streams of Idaho as if through our own eyes. It is for us to decide how to react.
And what is it that we see? We see the narrator, his woman and his baby camping in Idaho like some latter day pioneer family. But instead of pristine nature, they encounter trout streams lined with cyanide capsules placed there to kill coyotes. The narrator and his woman make love in a hot spring with green slime growing around the edges and dead fish floating in the water. The woman doesn’t have her diaphragm, and not wanting to have more children, the narrator pulls out at just the right moment: “My sperm came out into the water, unaccustomed to the light, and instantly became a misty, stringy kind of thing and swirled out like a falling star.” We see a used trout stream for sale by the running foot at the Cleveland Wrecking Yard. Waterfalls sold separately.
In among these scenes of the defiling of nature by twentieth century man are some excellent satirical pieces. There is a wonderful send-up of Ernest Hemingway in the chapter called “Sea Sea Rider”. The narrator is in a bookshop, reading, and the owner entices him to make love to a woman in the store. The narrator goes upstairs and makes love to the woman. When he comes down, the bookshop owner explains the Hemingwayesque meaning of the encounter:
“You fought in the Spanish Civil War. You were a young Communist from Cleveland, Ohio. She was a painter. A New York Jew who was sightseeing in the Spanish Civil War as if it were the Mardi Gras in New Orleans being acted out by Greek statues.”
“She was drawing a picture of a dead anarchist when you met her. She asked you to stand beside the anarchist and act as if you had killed him. You slapped her across the face and said something that would be embarrassing for me to repeat.”
“You both fell very much in love.”
Trout Fishing is a simple delight to read. Brautigan’s use of language is elegant, funny, and striking. Through it all we get a sense of an America that has not come to terms with the natural bounty that surrounds it. America wants to exploit and degrade nature, not celebrate it. But there is hope. Toward the end of the book the narrator and his family move in with Pard and his girlfriend, “in the California Bush”. They share a cabin in Mill Valley, live among the birds and the deer, and “read books like The Thieves Journal, Set This House on Fire, The Naked Lunch, and Kraft-Ebbing. They eat, talk, and sleep. We get the feeling that perhaps communal living in tune with nature will bring us to an evolved state where we can move beyond our current money grubbing concerns.
In Watermelon Sugar, Brautigan’s third book, is quite something else again. It is a fable about a society, set somewhat in the near future, in which everyone gets along and lives in peace with one another. Well, almost everyone. The narrator has no name:
“I am one of those who do not have a regular name … If you are thinking about something that happened a long time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer. That is my name.”
The society is a small town centered around a communal space known as iDEATH. Most of the people either live at iDEATH or in simple shacks nearby. iDEATH is a beautiful place that blends in with nature (a river runs through the living room) and is adjoined by a trout hatchery.
In the past, iDEATH was beset by Tigers, who were quite intelligent and had beautiful voices, but who ate the adult members of the community, including the narrator’s parents. Eventually, the townspeople kill the tigers, and on the spot where they burned the last of the tigers they built the trout hatchery.
The artifacts of the previous society, the cheap consumer dreck that passed for civilization before the advent of iDEATH, are relegated to an area called The Forgotten Works. Here lurks inBOIL and his gang, rebels from the iDEATH commune and the only members of the society who do not live in peace with the other members. inBOIL makes whiskey from things he finds in The Forgotten Works, and he and his gang live in a constant state of drunkenness.
Almost everything in the little society of iDEATH is made of watermelon sugar. The sun is a different color every day, and the watermelon sugar takes on the color of the day that it was made: Monday, the sky and watermelons are red; Tuesday, golden; Wednesday, grey; Thursday, black (and soundless); Friday, white; Saturday, blue; Sunday, brown.
The nameless narrator was once involved with Margaret, but Margaret has taken to going down to The Forgotten Works and foraging for objects from the past. She is also suspected of conspiring with inBOIL. Now the narrator has a relationship with Pauline, who does the cooking at iDEATH.
In the first part of the book we thus get a vision of an idyllic place, where there is no envy or competition. The people are gentle and possess only what they need. Each has a job, such as Pauline and Art who do the cooking. The narrator’s job is to write a book – the one that you are reading.
All are content with things as they are except for inBOIL. One day he and his gang march up to iDEATH from The Forgotten Works and confront the rest of the residents at the trout hatchery. inBOIL says “the Tigers were the true meaning of iDEATH. Without the Tigers there could be no iDEATH and you killed the Tigers and iDEATH went away. […] I’m going to bring back iDEATH. We’re all going to bring back iDEATH”.
With this, inBOIL pulls out his jackknife and cuts off his thumb. Then he begins to cut of other body parts such as his ears and nose. The rest of the gang follows suit, until they all bleed to death. Pauline goes to fetch a mop to wipe up the blood.
The townspeople carry inBOIL and his gang to their shacks by The Forgotten Works, put them inside, douse the shacks with watermelontrout oil, and set them ablaze. The narrator goes to the statue of mirrors, where anything can be seen. He sees Margaret hang herself from an apple tree in front of her shack.
The narrator, Fred, and Margaret’s brother go to fetch the body and bring it back to iDEATH. They wall up her shack and prepare her for burial. She is buried, like the other residents of iDEATH, in a clear tomb at the bottom of a stream, with foxfire so that her tomb will glow in the dark.
The townspeople then hold a dance, which is traditional after a funeral.
The people of iDEATH have given up their egos (iDEATH: the death of I, the death of the ego) in order to live a life of harmony with one another. Their gentleness and passivity allows the collective society to succeed. The Tigers were a threat to this selfless, passive society, because the Tigers put their needs (the need to eat people) above the good of the group. For this reason, the Tigers were killed, and iDEATH flourished.
inBOIL, however, could not accept iDEATH as it had become. He longed for the Tigers, who represented individualism in a society where the people have given up striving to achieve contentment. He represents the creative force, the force of art, which needs struggle and individual effort in order to create. He looks to the past, The Forgotten Works, for inspiration.
The contrast between iDEATH and inBOIL perhaps represents the struggle within Brautigan himself. When we read his daughter Ianthe Brautigan’s memoir You Can’t Catch Death, we see a gentle man, seeking harmony with nature, who nonetheless was a complete outsider, overcome by alcoholism and depression.
iDEATH represents the way of life that Brautigan wished for. inBOIL represents the artistic drive that would never allow him to attain the peace of the communal life. inBOIL’s suicide at the end of the book is a grim foreshadowing of Brautigan’s own suicide.
The perfect world of iDEATH requires that we give up individuality and the creative force in order to live in harmony with others and with nature. For the creative person, this is a world to be desired, but ultimately unattainable, as the creative force is too strong within them.
Much has been made of the objectivity of Brautigan’s narrators in these slim books. They observe, but they do not reflect. My interpretation is that the narrators open a portal in to the struggles of Brautigan’s personal world, but pass no judgment. The reader is thus allowed to make his own decision about Brautigan’s concerns: the struggle to live peacefully in society despite being an outsider, the desire to achieve happiness despite being driven to create art, the desire to reconcile the beauty of nature with the violence inherent in it.
As a stylist, Brautigan is incomparable. His books are really prose poems along the lines of Charles Baudelaire more than they are conventional novels. They are easy to read, funny, packed with startling and original images. But the overall feeling one gets when reading them is bittersweet. There is a longing for the past, tinged with the struggle to live well in the present. There is a struggle between life and art. All in these deceptively simple stories from, but not necessarily of, the 1960s.