Harold Beaver's review of 'Sombrero Fallout'
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Dead Pan Alley | Richard Brautigan: Sombrero Fallout

by Harold Beaver?

Though subtitled "A Japanese Novel" and dedicated to Junichiro Tanizaki?, admirers of Richard Brautigan need not worry. His seventh novel is the same mixture as before: a jigsaw of anecdotes - part sentimental idyll, part comic strip fantasy - retailed in eighty bizarre sequences, or shots, as from a film, or frames, or chapters varying in length from a picture postcard to an air letter form.

There is this well-known American humorist, heartbroken because his girlfriend has left him. There is this story of an ice-cold sombrero that falls out of a blue sky (the work of this well-known, heartbroken humorist) which he tears up and drops into an empty wastepaper basket. Mix and shuffle. The Japanese girl dreams a self-obliterating dream that she will never remember. The sombrero story perpetuates itself in the wastepaper basket, developing into gun battles, mayhem and national holocaust. The humorist potters about his apartment - opening and closing the refrigerator, telephoning girlfriends, searching the floor for a strand of black Japanese hair - consumed by self-propagating obsessions: "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."

It is a three-way scramble, then, between self-perpetuating nightmares, erotic daydreams that mix with dietary or other obsessions to haunt the bored, insecure mind, and the renewal, in deep sleep, of mental stability. The public moral (of the sombrero story) is: "There is more to life than meets the eye." The private moral (for the Japanese girl, a psychiatric nurse working in the emergency ward of a San Francisco hospital) is: beware of authors -

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 too complicated. They were like having a vacuum cleaner around that broke all the time and only Einstein could fix it.

She wanted her next lover to be a broom.

Two of these strands form an interweaving of opposites: of nurse and patient, Asian and Caucasian, purring calm and tearful neurosis, tinkling laughter and fabricated humor. The breakdown of this private bonding simultaneously explodes, in a public mystery - a Wild West fission (complete with gun-slinging sheriffs, helicopters and the National Guard) in the wastepaper basket. The mayor's apocalyptic car number plate is "AZ 1492"; enter Norman Mailer, war correspondent of the armies of the night:

Again and again he exposed himself to tremendous concentrations of townspeople firepower... The tank that Norman Mailer was riding in was hit and two men were killed inside it. Mailer and the rest of the crew climbed out. They were covered with blood from the dead men. All round them small arms fire was oxidizing the air. It was a very dangerous situation, but miraculously Mailer got out of it alive. He was interviewed by television newsmen a few moments after he got back. He was covered with so much blood that it looked as if he had been hit himself.

"What was it like?" was the first question Mailer was asked.

Later on that evening 100 million Americans saw Norman Mailer, covered with blood, say, "Hell. There is no other word for it. Hell."

The American humorist, splitting from his Japanese girlfriend inaugurates or anticipates that public hell. As in the final midair collision of two helicopters, they seem "like two, tall awkward people getting tangled up together in a revolving door during an earthquake."

Fracture is the essence of Brautigan's craft: the separation of perceptions, chapters, ideograms, like the separation of the two lovers sixteen blocks apart. It is an art as Nathanael West would have said of "the dead pan". Each movement is arrested in a breath, transformed into a metaphor. Like a curator displaying a butterfly case, Brautigan moves on from specimen to specimen. The drollery lies in the narrations; the meaning in their intersections. But it is only fair to warn new readers that they may not be captivated by it; as Brautigan says of his own goofy protagonist: "it was just that his mind translated this into a twelve-ring circus with most of the acts not worth watching a second time. After a while non-stop brilliance has the same effect as non-stop boredom."

Times Literary Supplement
April 1, 1977: 392

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