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Weeds and Four-Leaf Clovers | Revenge of the Lawnby Anatole Broyard?
Years ago when I lived in the Village and had a 9-to-5 job, I used to eat breakfast at a place called Joe's Dinette on West Fourth Street. Most mornings, there was a guy named Dick in the next booth, reading The New York Times and chuckling over little items he found in it that amused him. As far as I knew, he didn't work, this Dick, and I wondered why he got up so early in the morning. Perhaps he didn't mind getting up because there was no job waiting for him to buckle down to, or maybe he went back to sleep after he finished chuckling over The New York Times. Whatever his reason, I know I both envied and resented his freedom, I would have liked to have leisure and the detachment to chuckle over The Times too - but I had to hustle off to work. This is how I feel about Richard Brautigan's stories. In fact, what I've just written sounds like a Brautigan story, right down to the inexplicable coincidence of both characters being named Richard.
Musing About Life
Brautigan sounds like a relaxed observer with all the time in the world to muse over the curious little turns life takes. Overheard remarks, incongruous occurrences, sense impressions, the shape of buildings or the look of people, the color of the weather - all this mixed in with memories, girls, places, jotting in a notebook, made by a man with nothing pressing on him, no compulsion to put it all in perspective, interpret it, drive it to the wall and ask "What does it mean?"
He can get 62 stories into a 174-page book that begins with Page 9. The shortest is three lines and the longest is seven pages. As you can see, there isn't much room for deep probing or sustained interaction. No sweat, man, you take it as it comes. Don't look at it too hard or you'll see beyond the moment, the two-penny epiphany, to the fact that these are just postcards, sent by somebody who's on vacation from life, a vacation he took a bus to, carrying nothing but a knapsack.
This doesn't mean that Revenge of the Lawn isn't fun to read. It often is. There are lots of nice things. A man who "looked if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions." A friend who burns his transistor radio on the beach because his wife has left and the music has gone out of his life. A man who is so fond of poems that he decides to take the plumbing out of his house and replace it with poetry. A sudden sight, on a beach near Monterey, of a group of "frog people," boys and girls dressed in black rubber suits with yellow oxygen tanks, eating watermelon.
There's a pleasant vignette of Brautigan watching a guy in the City Lights book store trying to make up his mind to buy one of his books. Finally be tosses a coin and the book loses. A really sweet piece - yes, I mean sweet - describes last night's girl getting dressed in the morning, disappearing, in due time, into her clothes and becoming a wholly adventure. There's another girl "sleeping in a very well-built blond way," until suddenly she starts to get up. "Get back in bed," he says. "Why?" she says. "Because you're still asleep," "Ohhh... okay," she said, cuddling up close.
Tinting With Literature
Brautigan has a good feeling for the American past, for small towns and the erosion of life styles, that is surprising in a man only in his middle thirties. But sometimes he's not satisfied to leave these quaint old snapshots alone and tries to tint them with literature. His longest story is about a boy going hunting in Oregon with his uncle Jarv. They stop in as small town, where Uncle Jarv writes a postcard and the boy stares at a nude Marilyn Monroe calendar on the post office wall. Somebody in the town has shot two bear cubs and a practical joker dresses them up - one in a white silk negligee - and sits them in a car. From this - the death of the two bears, the masquerade, the negligee, the calendar in the post office - Brautigan reaches all the way out into left field for Marilyn Monroe's suicide, years later, while she is still a cuddling little cub too, dressed up in death like a practical joke.
He does this too often for comfort. A story about a "crazy" old lady who fills her house with vases of flowers ends with a sententious bit of irrelevance: This was a month or two before the German army marched into Poland." Out hunting one day because he "just wanted the awareness of hunting," the first-person narrator is shocked to come upon an ugly shack, erected in what had always been virgin forest. Four small children without shoes come out on the porch of the shack to stare silently at him. It is raining and they are getting soaked, but they stand there, staring, silent. The author then nails up this heavy sign on their porch: "I had no reason to believe that there was anything more to life than this."
He wins some and he loses some. Once in a while a piece will rise to poetry. Others never get beyond easy vignettes, light enough to blow off the page. At its worst, Revenge of the Lawn sounds, simultaneously, like a clumsily written children's book and a pretentious piece of avant-garde impressionism. At his best Brautigan is one of those odd-looking guys with long hair and granny glasses who sees, hears, feels and thinks things that make some of us feel he's found a better answer to being alive here and now than we have.
The New York Times?
November 15, 1971: 39