Scott Bradfield's review of 'An Unfortunate Woman' and 'You Can't Catch Death'
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California: It's a jungle out there

by Scott Bradfield

Eccentric, chaotic and refreshingly unserious, Californian writers have produced a glut of great literature, says Scott Bradfield.

Serious writers aren't supposed to live in California. They aren't supposed to frolic on the white beaches, or drive convertibles down Pacific Coast Highway, or attend script-conferences with Tic-Tac-popping studio executives, where the only issue in dispute is how much to be paid, and how soon.

Rather. serious writers are supposed to be true to their vision, attend Ivy League/Oxbridge universities, happily publish books that don't sell, and live in derelict bed-sits close by their publishers in New York, London and Paris. In other words, they are expected to dream more conventional dreams than California. Otherwise, they might appear to be as vain and materialistic as the critics who applaud them - usually well after they're dead.

Eccentrically-entrepreneurial and poorly-networked, Californian writers usually sop up their educations at local libraries and second-hand bookstores (à la Steinbeck and Jack London); publish their work through fly-by-night small presses (Bukowski and the Beats?); or assemble their oeuvres through the always-underestimated commercial paperback houses (Philip K. Dick? and James Ellroy?). They are a motley, distinctly unserious lot. Which is, of course, what makes them interesting.

"I know you're mad at me for being a Hollywood whore," the novelist John Fante? once wrote to his New York agent, "but it's fun while it lasts." Which is probably a lot more than can be said about most literary whoredoms - academic, journalistic, or even those eligible for the Booker.

Say what you will about Californian writers, they do what they do with passionate intensity. And while self-invention may be their one over-riding characteristic, most can be slotted into one of the following four categories: the Hard-Boiled, the Spaced Out, the Street-Wise, and the Hippy Dippy.

The Hard-Boiled School, having enjoyed enormous commercial success, is now also accepted as capital-L Literature. And not coincidentally, it is a genre which depicts California as the sort of place that people who aren't lucky enough to live there wouldn't want to live in anyway: an urban noir of mean streets and disconnected lives where a few firm men (carrying guns, of course) try to sort out the demons from the angels - and usually bring justice to the proceedings a few minutes too late.

From The Big Sleep and The Player to Pulp Fiction and L.A. Confidential, the dispassionate lens of noir scans California's tacky suburbs to divulge secret histories of money, denial, and bad faith. In a land where anybody can be whoever they want to be, novelists don't delve too deeply into the question of who people really are, but rather trace the causal chain of one person knocking into another, bang bang, until somebody winds up dead. Even Pynchon's great California novels, Vineland and The Crying of Lot 49, are about revealing conspiracies of meaning which, in the long run, mean nothing at all.

When it comes to being Spaced-Out, nobody has been there and done that like Philip K. Dick?. Dick was the sort of life-long Californian who wore his belief-systems loosely. And like many of his own characters — in novels as solipsistically diverse as Martian Time-Slip and Do Androids Dream of Electric- Sheep? (aka, Blade-Runner) - Dick claimed to have enjoyed both out-of-body experiences, and telepathic communication with interstellar beings. Conventional reality, for Dick, was something people cooked up in order to sell Barbie doll accessories and Mickey Mouse watches, so it is probably no surprise that his always dissembling virtual worlds have been discovered by the movie business. Hollywood executives likewise seem to believe that reality is something you do to earn a buck.

But while the Hard Boiled and Spaced Out schools are among the successful manifestations of the West Coast Weltanschauung, they aren't necessarily the best. And despite their current cinematic unpopularity, the Street-Wise crew represents California's most substantive literary-élite. Beginning with the socialist and Naturalist novelists - Upton Sinclair? (The Jungle), Jack London (Call of the Wild) and Steinbeck (In Dubious Battle) - the Street-Wisers crested into the late-2Oth century in the guise of John Fante?, a transplanted Italo-Coloradoan who published the most emblematic Southern-California novel of his generation, Ask the Dust, back in 1939.

Like many California novels, Ask the Dust is semi-autobiographical, and describes an inner-city populated both by those who, in the words of Nathanael West, "had come to California to die" and those who came to live as well: "The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun... The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged." For Fante, California was a Paradise that people created for themselves. But a Paradise nevertheless.

Finally, California's most unfairly disparaged writer could well be Richard Brautigan, who breathed life into the Hippy-Dippy school during the Woodstock-era. By means of a series of funny, episodic and surreal comic novels, such as A Confederate General from Big Sur and Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan has remained a cult favorite on college campuses around the world, but his literary stature has never been writ large.

That may be about to change. Two new reissues from the Edinburgh-based publisher Rebel Inc?. may help Brautigan acquire some of the gravity he deserves. First, You Can't Catch Death, Ianthe Brautigan's memoir of coming to terms with her father's suicide (Richard Brautigan shot himself in the head at the age of 47) suffers from many longeurs, but depicts a genuinely talented man who wasn't at his best when he started drinking. Brautigan fled rural poverty in the Pacific Northwest to become the porkpie-hatted, walrus-moustached and very Whitmanesque poet who adorned his own dust-jackets, usually flanked by a distinctive-looking young woman (just to let the world know he wasn't that Whitmanesque).

For Brautigan, art was supposed to be, well, here comes that word again - "fun". Sometimes, though, fun had its drawbacks, such as the night Brautigan took his daughter to see Nureyev at the San Francisco Opera House, and was dismayed to learn that none of the performers in this particular ballet were ever going to start talking. "I'm going to go get a drink," he decided finally. It was a bad decision Brautigan kept making over and over again.

Along with daughter Ianthe's memoir, Rebel, Inc.'s second reissue is something unusual: a posthumous novel which is actually quite good, one of Brautigan's best, in fact. And while it recounts the last days of a writer who thinks too much about suicide, An Unfortunate Woman never ceases to be moving or surprising, and contains some of Brautigan's best work.

In some ways, though, this too-long-delayed posthumous novel reinforces a sad misimpression that California is often the last gasp of dying talents. For while many fine writers certainly died there — Fitzgerald, West and Aldous Huxley, to name a few - they probably would have died even quicker anywhere else. And, undoubtedly, they wouldn't have had as much fun doing it, or enjoyed better weather.

The Times
June 21, 2000: 12

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