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Critical Survey of Short Fiction: Richard Brautigan
by Carl Brucker?
Born: Tacoma, Washington; January 30, 1935
Died: Bolinas, California; September, 1984
Principal short fiction
Trout Fishing in America, 1967; Revenge of the Lawn: Stories, 1962-1970, 1971; The Tokyo-Montana Express, 1980.
Other literary forms
Richard Brautigan's fragmented prose style makes any effort to classify his work into long and short fiction difficult and somewhat arbitrary. Brautigan himself called all of his prose works novels, with the single exception of Revenge of the Lawn, but critics have understandably referred to his books as "un-novels" or "Brautigans," works that seem approachable only on their own terms because they deliberately confront the realistic tradition of the novel by disregarding causality and character development. Nevertheless, Trout Fishing in America and The Tokyo-Montana Express can be grouped with Revenge of the Lawn as examples of Brautigan's short fiction. Although arguably unified by point of view, setting, theme, and recurrent characters, Trout Fishing in America and The Tokyo-Montana Express lack any semblance of coherent plot and many of the individual selections which compose each book possess an integrity independent of context. Brautigan's other novels are distinguished by at least a thin strand of continuous narrative. The most important of these longer fictions are A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964), In Watermelon Sugar (1968), and The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1971). The best known of his eleven poetry collections are The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (1Q68), Rommel Drives on Deep into Egypt (1970), and June 30th, June 30th (1978).
After Trout Fishing in America was published by Don Allen's Four Season Foundation in 1967, it became a favorite of the counterculture movement that was peaking during that "summer of love." Brautigan was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant the following year. At the suggestion of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Seymour Lawrence bought the rights to Trout Fishing in America and promoted it nationally. The novel became a best-seller, eventually selling more than two million copies in twelve languages. The popularity spread to A Confederate General from Big Sur, In Watermelon Sugar, and Revenge of the Lawn, all of which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Brautigan's fortunes declined dramatically in the 1970's as the counterculture movement faded. One critic called The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western (1974) "a terrible book, deeply unfunny, in no need of having been written," and subsequent books met with similar critical hostility. By the end of the decade, Brautigan was being frequently dismissed as an anachronism. American sales also began to fall, and before his death, Brautigan was having difficulty getting his books published. As his popularity declined in the United States, however, he was discovered in Japan, increasing the foreign sales of his work.
Born in Tacoma, Washington, in the midst of the Great Depression, Richard Brautigan moved to San Francisco in 1956, arriving in time to be a peripheral part of the Beat movement. He managed to publish several volumes of poetry although none sold well and many were simply given away. Some were printed on packages of seeds. In 1961, during an extended camping trip in the Snake River country of Idaho, Brautigan wrote Trout Fishing in America, but he was unable to get his unusual book published until 1967. A more traditional novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, sold only 743 copies in 1964. In 1967, while serving for a year as poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology, Brautigan began to develop an underground following. In the next few years, Trout Fishing in America made Brautigan rich and famous, and the media identified him as the literary spokesman of the counterculture. From 1972 to 1980, Brautigan produced a series of unsuccessful parodic novels and refused all lecture invitations and interview requests, dividing his time between his Montana ranch and Japan, where interest in his writing was increasing. He returned to the lecture circuit in 1980, but the years of popularity were irrecoverably behind him. His friends reported that this diminishing readership depressed Brautigan, and in September, 1984, he shot himself. The body was discovered in Brautigan's home in Bolinas, California, on October 25, 1984.
Richard Brautigan's short fiction explores the imagination's power to transform reality. In some stories, this means contrasting a gritty, naturalistic portrait of cheap materialism, personal defeat, and latent violence with a vision of the lost American Eden or a nostalgic remembrance of childhood's innocence. Collectively, the stories describe a search for good in contemporary America, but because they sympathize with the defeated, they suggest that such a search is futile. Brautigan's stories stoically accept the conditions of existence, withholding judgment while suggesting that the imagination holds the only possible hope for transcendence.
The stories are self-consciously artificial, continually calling attention to the process of their creation. The typographical experimentation, outrageous figures of speech, extreme compression, and deceptively simplistic syntax work through a disengaged narrative voice to create prose that has been compared to skywriting. The conscious artificiality of Brautigan's stylistic mannerisms has led some critics to dismiss his work as whimsical, coy, naive, and self-indulgent.
Although Trout Fishing in America became popular as a counterculture book during the late 1960's, it was written in 1961 as a late expression of the San Francisco Beat movement. Brautigan, like other Beats, had been conditioned by the experience of the Great Depression and World War II, historical examples of deprivation and violence, and he saw in these experiences deep truths that belied America's complacent prosperity. In contrast to the radicals of the l930's and the New Left of the 1960's, Brautigan and other Beats sought social change not through collective action but through personal transformation.
Thus, Trout Fishing in America is an antididactic book, an effort to document America from a disengaged, thoroughly nonpolitical point of view. Although the America it documents is spiritually decayed, the forty-seven stories that compose Trout Fishing in America do not promote a program of social reform. Instead, the book's underlying philosophy, derived from Zen Buddhist belief, assumes that life is essentially determined and that social progress is an illusion. Brautigan expounds a politics of the imagination in which social activism is supplanted by the individual imagination's ability to create a vision of freedom, a vision of an America that is "often only a place in the mind." To this extent, the explicit theme of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, which was published in 1961, as Trout Fishing in America was being written, suits Brautigan's book: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." Brautigan's unnamed narrator uses his imagination to "fish" for something of value in the stream of contemporary America, but like his comically failed fisherman Alonso Hagen in "Fishing on the Streets of Eternity," his effort becomes "an interesting experiment in total loss."
Stylistically, Trout Fishing in America seems without literary precedent, a documentary collage of prose poems and cultural allusions that exhibits no interest in character, plot development, or psychological motivation Literary parodies (of Ernest Hemingway?, John Steinbeck, Henry David Thoreau ) are juxtaposed to references to historical figures (Richard Nixon, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Andrew Carnegie, Caryl Chessman, Deanna Durbin) and the signatures of popular culture (bumper stickers, diaries, tombstone engravings, recipes, warning signs). Woven through this cultural stew is the protean phrase "Trout Fishing in America," which is applied to people, places, a hotel, a pen nib, a state of mind, and the book itself.
"The Cover for Trout Fishing in America," the opening piece, exemplifies the book's self-consciousness and introduces Brautigan's ironic view of America. By describing the book's cover photograph, Brautigan reminds his reader that Trout Fishing in America is itself an artifact, a component of the society he is documenting. He then juxtaposes a statue of Benjamin Franklin, the prototypical American optimist, to the derelicts who sadly wait in the park hoping for a handout. Although the concluding quotation from Franz Kafka, "I like the Americans because they are healthy and optimistic," is ironic, Brautigan's matter-of-fact presentation prevents the piece from being read as social protest. Instead, the book implies that optimism, no matter how ill-founded, is a part of the American condition.
In a complementary way, "The Kool-Aid Wino" demonstrates the imagination's power to overcome the limitations of existence. The Kool-Aid Wino is a child who is restricted from picking beans or engaging in active play by a hernia. His family is too poor to afford an operation or even a truss, so the Kool-Aid Wino spends his days lovingly preparing a watered-down, sugarless version of Kool-Aid "like a famous brain surgeon removing a disordered portion of the imagination." Through his ceremonious preparation and consumption he creates "his own Kool-Aid reality" and is "able to illuminate himself by it." The story celebrates the human capacity to transcend reality while simultaneously portraying the sad deprivations that make such imaginative escape necessary.
In "Trout Fishing on the Bevel," Brautigan's narrator describes fishing a stream that runs past two graveyards, one for the rich and one for the poor. Like many of Brautigan's short fictions, "Trout Fishing on the Bevel" meditates on loneliness, poverty, death, and the desire to transcend them. The narrator describes the weathered boards, "like heels of stale bread," that mark the graves of the poor and imagines darkly humorous inscriptions ("Beloved Worked-to-Death Mother Of") that disclose the painful reality usually disguised by euphemisms. In contrast, the graves of the rich are marked with "marble hors d'oeuvres like horses trotting up the fancy paths to the sky." Admittedly "bothered" by "the poverty of the dead," the narrator has a vision of going over to the poor graveyard and gathering up grass and fruit jars and tin cans and markers and wilted flowers and bugs and weeds and clods and going home and putting a hook in the vise and tying a fly with all that stuff and then going outside and casting it up into the sky, watching it float over clouds and then into the evening star." It is one of Brautigan's clearest statements of his artistic purpose, expressing his desire to construct from the forgotten or overlooked bits of life an art that can imaginatively free his reader from the particular loneliness of existence.
"The Cleveland Wrecking Yard?" is placed near the end of Trout Fishing in America, and it provides a caricature of America's obsessive materialism. At the Cleveland Wrecking Yard, a microcosm of America, the narrator finds a trout stream for sale, stacked up in lengths beside toilets and other used plumbing supplies, but he does not condemn this outrageous "commodification" of nature; instead, he sees the Cleveland Wrecking Yard as a repository for tarnished dreams that can only be revitalized with imagination. Indeed, the process by which discarded items can be recycled parallels the way in which Brautigan salvages the scraps of American culture to construct Trout Fishing in America.
Many of the stories collected in Revenge of the Lawn deal with childhood, portraying it as a fragile refuge, a time when people are more open to the transforming power of imagination. The stories contrast this freedom with the crippling disillusionments that accompany maturation and the sadder ways adults use imagination to escape reality.
The title story?, however, shows Brautigan at his most playful, demonstrating an ability to use comic misdirection and a deadpan narrative voice in the manner of Mark Twain?. This rambling, autobiographical remembrance focuses on his grandmother, his grandfather, and a man named Jack. The grandfather. "a minor Washington mystic," went mad after he correctly "prophesied the exact date when World War I would start." In his madness he returns to an eternal childhood in which he is six years old. He is replaced by Jack, an itinerant salesman of lots in Florida, who hawks "a vision of eternal oranges and sunshine." These contrasting visionaries are set against the grandmother, a bootlegger, who sells a utilitarian sort of bottled vision. The action of the story revolves around Jack's relationship to nature, specifically the lawn which he has destroyed by driving on it, a pear tree which grows in the yard, the bees that are attracted to the pears, and the grandmother's geese. The geese eat some fermenting mash and pass out in the yard. The grandmother, comically assuming that the geese are dead, plucks them. They recover and are standing about "like some helpless, primitive American advertisement for aspirin," when Jack, distracted by the sight, drives into the house. In a concluding note, the narrator writes that his earliest memory is an image of Jack setting fire to the tree "while the fruit was still green on the branches." "Revenge of the Lawn" demonstrates Brautigan's ability to write comic narrative while satirizing man's foolish attempts to manage nature. "Corporal?" is a bittersweet inverted Horatio Alger story in which the narrator recounts his wartime involvement in a paper drive. The young patriots were to earn military ranks according to the amount of paper they collected. The narrator's initial eagerness was thwarted, however, when he realized that "the kids who wore the best clothes and had lots of spending money and got to eat hot lunch every day" had an unfair advantage, for these kids "were already generals," and "they strutted their military airs around the playground." Like so many of Brautigan's characters, the narrator admitted defeat and entered "the disenchanted paper shadows of America where failure is a bounced check or a bad report card or a letter ending a love affair and all the words that hurt people when they read them." "Corporal" evokes the opposing worlds of good and bad paper, the childlike creative dream and the stifling economic and social reality. The story painfully portrays the disappointments that constitute so much of life, and emphasizes, in a manner that is particularly relevant for an author who places imaginative creation at the center of life, the precariousness of a life lived in the mind.
The last piece in Revenge of the Lawn is one of the most openly autobiographical. "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane?" is Brautigan's response to the death of his father-in law, but this piece, despite its specificity, effectively communicates Brautigan's general sense of life as a process of attrition (the first word of A Confederate General from Big Sur). "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane" exemplifies Brautigan's disregard for traditional narrative method and his love of lists, for after a brief introduction, the story presents a numbered catalog of thirty-three separate thoughts. In an elliptical manner, these distinct statements chronicle the life of a defeated man. Most suggestive is the contrast between his father-in-law's experience as a pilot in World War I, when "he had been followed by a rainbow across the skies of France," and the quiet alcoholism of his final years of inactivity, when he watched daytime television and "used sweet wine in place of life because he didn't have any more life to use." The father-in-law's retreat from life parallels the Kool-Aid Wino's, except that in "The World War I Los Angeles Airplane" there is no intimation that the escape is illuminating.
During the 1970's, Brautigan announced his intention to write a novel parodying a popular genre each year The Hawkline Monster, Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery (1975), Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel (1976), and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel, 1942 (1977) were critical disasters for Brautigan. By the time he published The Tokyo-Montana Express in 1980, his literary reputation had been ruined, and he had been deserted by most of his readers. His status as a counterculture hero, which was always based on a misunderstanding of his work, had become irrelevant, except as another barrier standing between him and the readers of the 1980's. Although Brautigan resumed lecturing to promote The Tokyo-Montana Express, he was unable to recapture the broad acceptance that had made him a best-selling author a decade before. Nevertheless, The Tokyo-Montana Express, for all of its unevenness, marked a healthy return to the effective short fiction evident in Trout Fishing in America and Revenge of the Lawn.
The Tokyo-Montana Express contains 131 individual prose pieces. A few of these approximate the traditional form of the short story, but most would more accurately be called anecdotes, vignettes, or prose poems. Overall, Brautigan's tendency toward compression is more evident in The Tokyo-Montana Express than in his earlier work. He is also more restrained in his use of bizarre figures of speech, and the disengaged flatness of his prose is more consistent.
As in all of his short fiction, Brautigan's primary concern in The Tokyo-Montana Express is the imagination. In Trout Fishing in America, he figuratively "fishes" for a vision of America; in The Tokyo-Montana Express, he travels an imaginary transpacific railroad, a vehicle for the metaphysical commutation of ideas between East and West, Written after a period during which he spent most of his time either in Japan or on his farm in Montana, Brautigan's collection examines the cultures of East and West, repeatedly showing the ironic similarities and in the end suggesting that Montana's big sky country may be a geographically appropriate setting for the philosophy of Japan.
In The Tokyo-Montana Express, Brautigan's involvement with Zen Buddhist thought is more explicit than in his earlier work, expressing itself in the stoic attitude of the narrative voice he employs. One paradox expressed in the collection is that while all experiences are equally worthy of examination all experiences are also ultimately insignificant. The narrator's emotional disengagement cannot disguise a sadness that is much more prevalent here than in Brautigan's earlier work. Indeed, the narrator in The Tokyo-Montana Express expects very little of life, accepts the inevitable process of attrition, assumes that any meaning must originate in the individual imagination, and exhibits great faith in the integrity of that imagination.
"Another Texas Ghost Story?" recounts the life of a man who, while growing up on a remote Texas ranch, is visited at night by a ghost. Forty years later at a family reunion, he accidentally admits his childhood experience to his brother and two sisters only to discover that they too had seen the apparition when they were children. They were all afraid to mention it at the time because they were afraid they would be thought crazy. In "Another Texas Ghost Story," Brautigan connects childhood and imagination and implies that societal pressure makes us less receptive to the wonder around us.
"Werewolf Raspberries?" is an example of the extreme compression of many pieces in The Tokyo-Montana Express. Its seventy-nine words, interrupted by ellipses, seem like the fragmented remains of a more complete narrative, yet this abbreviated prose poem manages to communicate a complex story. Set in the spring of 1940 with a Glenn Miller recording playing in the background, the narrative voice in "Werewolf Raspberries" addresses a young man whose single-minded romantic desire to give his girl "a great big kiss" has been inexplicably thwarted by the raspberries' "little teeth shining in the moonlight." The piece concludes with the ironic remonstrance that "If you had played your cards right, you could have been killed at Pearl Harbor instead." On one level, this brief prose poem expresses a nostalgic feel for dreams lost to the inevitable imperfections and accidents of existence, but the final comment ironically compares the harmless adolescent dream of romance with the lethal, but equally adolescent, dream of glory.
"The Menu/1965" is the longest piece in The Tokyo-Montana Express, and it shows Brautigan extracting significance from a strange but mundane object, in this case the monthly menu prepared for residents of San Quentin's Death Row. The narrator resists judging the significance of this artifact; instead, he reports several other people's reactions to this strange juxtaposition of dining and death. At the end, the narrator and the intellectual father of a friend become entranced in "a long conversation where the menu became a kind of thought diving bell going deeper and deeper, deeper and deeper until we were at the cold flat bottom of the sea, staring fish-like at the colored Easter eggs that were going to be served next Sunday on Death Row." The allusion to Easter portrays the condemned prisoners as Christlike sacrifices, but the primary focus of the story is the fascination of the object and the manner in which it triggers the imagination.
All of Brautigan's short fictions are meant to become "thought diving bells" for the reader, and often, as in "The Menu/1965," the process of mental exploration begins with the contemplation of a simple object or event. In the end, Brautigan's creative process stands as an exemplum of a method for confronting life's attrition.
Critical Survey of Short Fiction
Pasadena CA: Salem Press, 1987