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Peter Ackroyd's review of 'Sombrero Fallout'
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Whimsies | Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel

by Peter Ackroyd

There is one catchpenny formula which never fails to stagger American writers: as someone puts it in Richard Brautigan's new novel, 'Motto: there's more to life than meets the eye.' Or, in other words, let's imagine. What do cats dream about? What temperature is a sombrero? How large is an average-sized tuna fish sandwich? Why am I asking such dumb questions in the first place, when I'm trying to write a novel anyway? This is the whimsical and winsome tone which has captured a hundred bad New York poets; it storms through Donald Barthelme's work without success; it is quaint but effective in the novels of Brautigan. Or at least in this one: the two earlier, Hawkline Monster and Willard and His Bowling Trophies, drowned in their own inanition. But with Sombrero Fallout he is back on form.

An American humorist of the tight-lipped school has been abandoned by his Japanese girl-friend and, in that rage which not even American humour can satisfy, he tears up a new story. Naturally enough for Brautigan, who specialises in shifting the improbable and evanescent boundaries of fiction, the story carries on writing itself. It tells itself about riots, Presidents, and sombreros which fall from the sky. Meanwhile the humorist is complaining in a stage-whisper, to nobody in particular, and his girl friend keeps on sleeping. These elaborate games of make-believe ought to be tiresome and old-fashioned by now, but Brautigan makes a habit of being readable. He also keeps his chapters short. This must be a deliberate ploy on his part since the flat tone, the deadpan manner, the enumeration of comic and not so comic particulars, would pall if delivered at length. As it is, Brautigan depends upon surprise and witty juxtaposition to make his points for him.

Because he has no central theme to push his narrative into shape, he hunts out those little moods and tiny moments which pass by conventional novelists desperate in their search for a story. Such things as the truth of the emotions, the meaning of being and the being of meaning don't seem to bother Brautigan, and why should they? He's not about to change a winning formula. He has seen his future, and it works: 'He never lacked things to worry about. They followed him around like millions of trained white mice and he was their master. If he taught all his worries to sing, they would have made the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sound like a potato.' Who needs feelings when you can have style instead?


Spectator
April 2, 1977: 27-28.

Note: The above is an excerpt from a longer article which includes reviews of Reunion by Fred Ulhman, The Girl in the Picture by Diana Melly, and Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan.


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